Sincronía Summer 2001


MARY AND GENDER EXCLUSION                                                                         


François Fouché
Berlitz Language Center, Pesaro

With the evolution over the centuries of it's tradition of leadership, the Catholic Church would have it that men must remain the sole authors of policy.  It may smack of veiled sexism to imply that this triumph of patriarchy is simply the result of a resenting  male psyche inconsolably envious of being ill-equipped to participate fully, with childbirth, in the mystery of creation.  However, a gender-specific clergy electing themselves, as sacramental ministers, the privilaged dispensers of grace, begs questions nonetheless. 


   Beginning with an agreement in Milan between Licinius and Constantine in 313 AD  (later dubbed the Edict of Milan), and considered alongside the more wileful meanderings of the Church's history all these developments had their weight in securing that the Curia as we know it was, from the outset, an in-club.  Here The Empire effectively accorded to christians a first acknowledgement of legitimacy   (if we are to understand that Constantine’s conversion was probably more of a process than an event).  It follows, then, that in order to be taken seriously as the burgeoning fashion of the day the government of the Church immediately patterned itself after the imperial model already securely entrenched in contemporary Rome.  A religio-political tradition of leadership  - no less culturally defined -  would then build upon existing Judeo-Christian foundations and, as would be evident from the might of the Holy Roman Empire in later centuries  (at whatever lamentable cost to the unfortunates along the way)  would not do too badly for itself at all in the end.  As one jesuitical apologist once enlightened me :  any glib conclusion that the development of a hierarchic priestly tradition hails simply from one titanic matrix of theological claptrap might be deemed premature when we consider that a bishop being offered such formidable temporal power as it is in the Emperor's gift to bestow hardly smirks or sniffs at the prospect.  Instead, for the greater glory of God and  (of course)  wholly disinterestedly, he grabs at it with both hands  - outstretched, no doubt, in the attitude of prayer.  To retain his prize with any result to speak of our worthy administrator will as surely imitate those manifestations of power which make the biggest splash in his society.  Accumulated possessions or any property he might have chanced upon in the meantime will increase significantly in value if there be no offspring among whom such would be otherwise divided.  After the continuity of the patriarchal link this end had already been ably served.  It would become practically irreversible with the advent of mandatory priestly celibacy when, concomitantly, ideas around Mary come precariously close to expedient.


   Whereas over much of the Church's history religious celibacy was not uncommon, it was not universally imposed as a criterion for ordination before the Second Lateran Council of 1139.  The moral stance of this hierarchy whose didactic clout as defender of orthodoxy derives, in part, from it's own disciplines around sexuality can also be seen to have been fiendishly supported by the unfolding over the centuries of the Church's theology of Mary.  Already at the Annunciation she becomes the symbol of total abnegation before a God who, with the subsequent development of the trinitarian concept, will also be proclaimed 'Father,' so deferring, albeit consequentially, to the patriarchal monotheistic model already securely entrenched in the Jewish Palestine of the day.   


    After Pius IX, who on 8 December 1854 defined, ex cathedra, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception , we are left with a mental image of a sort of fourth person of the Blessed Trinity, with Mary ostensibly elevated to the same level as God.  Note that it was also during this disastrous pontificate, with the First Vatican Council  (1869 - 1870), that Papal Infallibility was endorsed.  The teaching of a sinless Mary  (now held to be infallible)  might be considered theologically unsound, as the mystery of the Incarnation should, arguably, have derived more depth of meaning if Creator was understood rather to have become creature in an 'imperfect' womb -  so electing, in love, to identify completely with humankind.  Though one can never be quite certain at which juncture revelation ends and doctrinal fancy begins, it is perhaps regrettable that by ratifying such a divisive teaching as this Pius succeeded, effectively, in straining already tenuous links between Catholics and other christians.  


   By venerating Mary as 'the Lord's servant  (Lk 1:37)'  - perhaps at the expense of her other attributes -   the leadership of the Church effectively uses her to relegate all womankind to a position of perpetual servility and motherhood.  Certainly, as far as it can be physiologically seen, the male role in procreation ends with conception.  However, if indeed any resentment has lingered, it should be deemed unfortunate for the Church to have remained thus stuck at the conclusion that if Womankind is singularly entrusted with the secret of human life then, at the very least, Mankind should be assigned control over it's eternal mysteries.


      A nagging contradiction here is that as Theotokos, or 'God-bearer,' Mary is herself the first priest of the New Covenant as it is she, a woman, who effectively brings into the world the promised Saviour.  It is therefore not surprising to find that others after her should express a wish to share in this ministry  (from her autobiography we have it that Saint Therese of Lisieux, for one, entertained a strong desire to offer Mass).


   In the time of Mary stories celebrating female valour were noteably few, though the book of Esther  (it's rabbinical status was still uncertain in the first century )  indicates that women soldiers of faith were nonetheless accorded a modest dignity in directing the course of events.  With his close circle of women companions, the person of Jesus would radically challenge such bigotry.  Mind that all the Evangelists report it is to a woman/women he chooses first to reveal himself after his Resurrection (Mt 28:9, Mk 16:9, Lk 24:1-8, Jn 20:11-18).  Moreover, our twee picture of the benign jewess of Nazareth is perhaps a far cry from the one painted against the backdrop of Roman Palestine.  Following Mary's dramatic discourse with the Angel, Luke has her proclaiming the Magnificat, after the Song of Hannah  (1 Sam 2:1-10), a significant text given the volatility of the period and consistent with the Messianic vision in vogue among orthodox jewry.  'He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly  (1:52),' lends expression to the existing image of the anticipated Messiah  (already aided by the cult around King David)  as liberator of an occupied theocracy.  In the context of such a sensitive nationalistic prototype as this, any form of domination by a foreign power was considered a living outrage.  From the wilderness the charismatic religio-political speak of the Baptist served only to stress the belief that in no uncertain terms God had business with Israel and that, in the spirit of the Maccabean Revolt which in the second century BCE had successfully challenged the might of the Seleucid kings, her deliverance was close at hand. 


   We have seen that with the Second Lateran Council celibacy became institutionalised as an obligatory accompaniment to Holy Orders of the Latin Rite.  How did such thinking make it's way into the early christian Church ?  Some scholars maintain that religiously motivated celibacy was not entirely alien to the Palestine of Jesus.  It has been suggested that the Essene sect of the Judaean Desert had opted for continence during what was perceived to be the advent of the coming of the Messiah.  A clear prophetic message discernable in, among other sources, contemporary writings of the Qumran community, is that a formidable warrior to rival the heroic stature of David himself was due to lead the 'faithful remnant of Israel' to march on Jerusalem  (Is 4:3, 37:31-32), reclaim the Temple and reform it's corrupt priesthood who, for their ineffectual resistence to Rome, were considered bedfellows of the oppressor and sellouts to the Law of Moses.  Celibacy, thus, for a dormant army of freedom fighters, here intended as an accessory to ritual preparedness for war.


   Perhaps taking his cue from the Essenes, in 1 Corinthians Paul recommends celibacy, although he goes on to say :  'it is better to be married than to be burnt up  (7:9),'  a position later asserted by Augustine of Hippo.  With Anthony of the Desert  (251 - 356) and the dawning of Christian monasticism in Coptic Egypt, and subsequently with the hermits of Mount Carmel in the twelfth century, celibacy as a life choice would emerge in support of workable forms of community life, though  particular to this movement, it must be noted, was it's lay character.


   It is thus not accidental that in the 'New Eve' the Church commends to it's leadership of bachelors a virgin dressed in blue and white period costume, wearing a veil and sporting a halo to whom they may direct their chaste affections -  a strong indication that our men of the cloth are beginning to lose touch with their sexuality.  This perpetual virginity  (upon which the Church still insists though it be biblically questionable, Lk 8:19)  becomes so exalted as to, at least in theory, accentuate the danger of rendering untouchable anything of woman save she whom, to all appearances, was sexless -  consequently making of the rest of womankind a collective form of forbidden fruit.  Of course, a logical deduction from here would be to justify the exclusion of women from any representative leadership in the Church.  Mary becomes thus a theological pawn to support the authority behind such thinking, for which collaboration far too much resembles power sharing.           


   To conclude, this has not been an assault on the mother of Jesus.  She remains, without a doubt, a central figure in salvation history and a shining example of fidelity to God.  Neither is it an attack on the Catholic Church.  To me, it's rich history represents the turbulent pilgrimage of a vast family of believers towards it's God, each seeking eternal answers to often distressingly real current questions.  Needless to say, not unlike the people of Israel throughout their own journeyings it has, on occasion, been unfaithful to God  (indeed perhaps it is, among other things, for it's imperfection throughout the ages that sinners, like myself, continue to find in it a home).  Yet though I should be disappointed with a Church which could never take a position at all, over issues of priestly celibacy and certain aspects of Marian Theology I find it difficult to regard it's hierarchy with absolutely no suspicion.  Finally, though I consider myself open to innovations of the Holy Spirit in the Church, it becomes difficult for me, seeing the fundamental exclusivity of the Roman Curia, to believe that Mary's position has not been manipulated to uphold a dubious form of leadership.









'Catechismo del Concilio di Trento', Ed. Pauline, Roma, 1961.


Hales EEY, 'Pio Nono,' Eyre and Spottwode, London, 1955.


Egidio Papa, 'Il Silabo di Pio Nono e la Stampa Francese, Inglese e Italiana,', Ed Cinque Lune, Roma, 1968.


Calkins A B, de Margerie B, O'Carroll M, Most W G, de la Potterie I, Shug J A, 'Mary Coredemptrix Medriatrix Advocate  THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS,' Santa Barbara CA, 1995.


Bright J, 'A History of Israel,' First British Edition, 1960, London.


Jeremias J., 'Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus,' London, 1969.


Vermez G., 'The Dead Sea Scrolls in English,' London, 1962.


Vermez G., 'Jesus the Jew :  A Historian's Reading of the Gospels,' London, 1973.


Nolan A., 'Jesus Before Christianity,' Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, London, 1976.


S Agostino d'Ippona, 'Le confessioni'.


'Story of a Soul.  The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux.'  Translated by John Clarke OCD, Washington DC, 1976.


Gobry I., 'Les Moines en Occident,' 3 Voll, Librarie Artheme Fayard, Paris, 1985-1987.


Bouyer L., 'La Vie de saint Antoine.' Essai sur la spiritualite du monachisme primitif, 1977, Paris.


'Primi Scritti Carmelitani', a cura di Dario Cumer, Citta Nuova Ed., Roma, 1986.


All biblical references from 'The New Jerusalem Bible  (Standard Edition),'  Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, London, 1985.

Return to Sincronía Summer 2001


Return to Sincronía General Index