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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