An image made too real

Two young priests I was in seminary with — and the only identical twin priests I know — have been bravely blogging about their experience of ministerial priesthood since 2007. Frs. Joel and Benjamin Sember, priests of the Diocese of Green Bay, share a joint blog where they post their weekly homilies (they also have podcasts) and write reflective and often insightful occasional pieces. It is one of my favorite Catholic blogs.

In a recent series, posted between 25 February 2010 and 1 March 2010, Fr. Benjamin attempted a comprehensive and definitive catechesis in response to a question he had fielded from a young member of his flock; a question regarding the Catholic Church’s continued reservation of ordained priestly ministry to men only. It is an interesting read, and he certainly doesn’t hold back in his ambitious coverage of all the traditional talking points.

I am not setting myself here to refute Fr. Sember’s entire tripartite apologia. Nor is it even my intention to imply that I am tempted to do so: the question of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church is a complex and divisive one, and it is definitely not one I feel myself qualified to engage with currently. I will say that Fr. Benjamin does make some nice points throughout his pieces; he clearly paid attention in class, and has in places done a fine job of popular-level synthesis, even though the framework of his explanation is for the most part little more than a string of unquestioned precritical statements.

What I am going to do, however, is to take grave issue with one particular element he relies on in the second section of his argument: the engendering, and thus the sexualization, of the Church itself. The Church has been referred as the Bride of Christ from the very first writings of the Christian community. Paul makes repeated use of spousal imagery in this sense, notably in Ephesians 5: 25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her … that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” At verse 29 Paul adds: “For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church.”

Now, I am no biblical exegete, so I am not going to make any authoritative claims regarding this text here. But as a fairly-skilled reader, when I read Ephesians I see here much more a prescription for proper human marital relationships on an analogue with the spiritual relationship of Christ with the corporate Body of believers, i.e. the Church, rather than the other way around. I see Paul using the image of the sacrificial and self-oblating love of Christ for his Church to teach his readers something important about the true nature of human relationships. It is an evocative symbolic image, and the Apostle uses it to inspired pedagogical-catechetical effect.

The image of the Church as the Bride of Christ has always been just that: an image, a poetic expression, a way of thinking about and concretizing the idea of total devotion and sacrificial love that characterizes that real spiritual relationship between Christ and the living community that lives and loves in him. It has never, to my knowledge, been a literal question of what orifices the Church has, and what should or should not be inserted into them. Pardon me if this is too crudely put, but I am seriously concerned that, when we take the images that were intended to illustrate theological truths and make those images into the theological truths themselves, we are well on our way to a childish (not child-like; note the pejorative) understanding of our faith. And childish understandings lead to immature assertions.

I have encountered this very same literalized imagery employed elsewhere as justification for the exclusion of men who may have homosexual inclinations from the presbyterate. Again, in such statements the spiritual reality of the Church itself is being presented literally as a sexual entity. This line of argument is beyond ridiculous; it is tragic.

Yes, the rôle of the ministerial priest is one of relationship to the People of God. At its best, it is an incomparably-committed relationship of self-giving and lifelong, sacrificial love. The powerful — and unique — spiritual character of this relationship requires some use of analogy with more familiar human relationships to aid in our common understanding of how such a life can be lived by flesh-and-blood humans. But to take those analogies and images literally is not to grasp the deeper meaning of the relationship between Christ and the Church, or between the Church and the priests who devote their lives to living service. To take such images literally is, instead, to miss the point. If pastors of souls desire to guide the faithful — and the world — to an understanding of the the Church’s “hard sayings” they will need to do so in a manner that does not assume the eventual agreement of all interlocutors, but rather assumes their human dignity and intelligence, and address them accordingly.

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