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.

The Medieval Worldview: The Gothic Cathedral

One summer I was doing my dissertation research in Europe and ran into a young Norwegian woman in Bologna, Italy. She asked me how I liked my travels and I mentioned especially my love of the great Medieval Cathedrals. She dismissively waved a hand and replied, “eh, you’ve seen one old Church, you’ve seen them all.” I was able to resist the urge to call her a viking barbarian and tell her that this was why her ancestors had pillaged Europe for 150 years—but it was a near thing. At any rate, I’ve since come to realize more and more the dependence of architecture on one’s world-view. As I wrote in an earlier post, man in the Middle Ages looked out at the same universe that modern man does, but it meant something different to him. The Cathedrals reflected a certain world-view, a world-view that modern man does not share and hence may struggle to understand.

The Medieval Cathedrals, Gothic architecture, were enormously expensive. Henry III spent 45,000 pounds on one, nine times the annual income of his whole realm. They could take hundreds of year to complete, an architect who began one could have no expectation that he would live to see his work finished. Furthermore challenges of transporting material and other technical challenges were tremendous. It is hard to imagine anyone going through similar effort for a building today. Why do it then? How the Cathedrals were built and what they looked like is one question. The “skyscrapers of their day,” as one art historian called them, were committed to as much height as possible. Hence, they made use of flying buttresses (except the Italians, who considered the flying buttress ugly) and the pointed arch, to allow greater height. With greater height, taller stained glass windows could be built, sometimes costing as much at the rest of the cathedral combined. The purpose: to flood the Cathedral with as much light as possible. What was the point and what did it mean?


The point was that the Cathedral represented an image of heaven. The Cathedral had its meaning built in by its makers and that meaning was to stand as an image of heaven. Hence the height and the stained glass to let in as much light as possible. John has said that God was light, “in Him is no darkness,” and so light, while natural, was seen as the most noble of natural phenomena because it represented the divine light and grace of God. As one looked up in a Cathedral, God’s grace, in the form of sunlight, streamed down from heaven on those within (1), just as in the Eucharist, God’s grace descended on all the faithful and turned mere matter into God himself.

This was possible because of the medieval mindset: matter could symbolize the divine. The material world was not all there was; rather it was the sign of a higher, more real spiritual world. Just as the universe was an objectively meaningful place because it had its meaning built in by its maker, so too a cathedral, in a lesser way, had its meaning built it by its maker and matter, because made by God, could represent divinity, both in the Universe and in a cathedral. The theologian John Scotus Erigena, for instance, remarked that “we understand a piece of wood or a stone, only when we see God in it.” To a mindset where meaning permeated the universe, a meaning built into it by its maker, the great Cathedrals were almost inevitable..


This was the age of the great medieval cathedrals and the great universities, dedicated to the task of harmonizing faith and reason. The two, cathedral and university were twins- growing up together at the same time and even same place (1). The universities were dedicated to the work of reason, but reason was not enough. Not all men had the time or ability to be philosophers, but all men needed to be saved. Hence, the task of the cathedral was to make the faith clearer by an appeal to reason, but to make reason clearer by appeal to imagination, and finally, to make imagination clearer by appeal to the senses. In a world where matter had its meaning built in and could represent the divine, the Gothic Cathedrals were simply natural. For this reason G.K. Chesterton wrote of the Gothic enterprise:

Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such as now object to barrel-organs) objected to the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose a clamorous like chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.

In the modern world, whose materialism denies the existence of a spiritual world, the universe has no meaning built in and so matter cannot represent any higher, holier, or more interesting world. Beauty in art or architecture is a pointless exercise and so all that is left is the utilitarian or the weird. The universe might be larger, but the world is smaller, a dimension dropped as modernity lives in the flatland of the materialist.

(1). Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

(2). Further reading on Cathedrals see Scott’s, The Gothic Enterprise. An imperfect book in its history, but one that still captures well the meaning of the Gothic Cathedral.

The Medieval Worldview I: The Universe

I have commented before, and am not the first to have done so, that the great fun of studying the past is not the mere memorization of facts, but history as a work of imagination and sympathy. It is about getting at how a past people saw the world differently than we do. What I mean is possibly best expressed by the English essayist G.K. Chesterton when he spoke of the need to get “inside history.” We need, he wrote:

“consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man… We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art.”

A lot goes into establishing a people’s mindset, how they saw the world and what it meant to them, but a fair place to begin is with the medieval model of the universe, discussed most accessibly in C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. One of Lewis’s points is that while medieval man looked out onto the universe, and saw the same facts that modern man does, the meaning was different. The facts were the same, but they did not mean the same thing, and they did not mean the same thing because medieval man saw the world differently. The model itself is simple enough and well enough known and so requires little time. It is simply the view of the universe he inherited from the classical ancestors.

The Universe in the Medieval Model.  Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

The Universe in the Medieval Model. Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

But while this is well-known, it is rather too little appreciated. Most are simply inclined to focus on the rather uninteresting fact that medieval man believed, as the ancient scientists told him, that the earth was at the center of the universe. More interesting is the medieval belief that the universe was enormous, but finite in size; modern man has recently come to believe the same thing.

More interesting still, however, was the medieval belief that the universe was a place of order and organization. It was a place of order and organization because it was the product of a divine mind. When modern man looks out on the universe, he looks out on something huge, strange, unknown, and alien. Something with no order, rather, in some theories, he looks on a universe moving toward ever greater disorder. He looks out, in Lewis’s words, on a shore-less sea or a vast, dark forest. Yet, Medieval man did not see that universe. To him (again according to Lewis) the universe was more like a vast Cathedral. Huge and finite, but ordered, with an order written into it by its maker.

Hence, the universe was not only a place of order, but a meaningful place. The universe had its meaning built in by its maker- just like a Cathedral would. Earth was built on the pattern of the heavens, and the heavens on the pattern of God. And so the universe represented the wisdom and goodness that made it. Not so today when modern man looks out on a meaningless universe forced either to soldier on in the midst of meaninglessness or to create a subjective meaning of his own. In the Middle Ages, there was no need to create meaning- it was already there.

Finally, like a Cathedral, because the universe was the produce of a divine mind, built on the pattern of that mind, and earth built on the pattern of the heavens, matter also had meaning built into it. Matter could thus have a higher meaning. Modern man sees the same facts as medieval man, but they do not mean the same thing. For medieval man, matter could represent divinity. Hence the Cathedrals, marriage symbolism, and Francis of Assisi’s love of nature. In a sense, it was like a three dimensional world compared to flat land- a smaller universe, but a larger world.