Monday, August 22, 2016

Balthasar: From his "Women Priests? A Marian Church in a Fatherless and Motherless Culture"

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), well-known Swiss theologian and priest (who almost become a cardinal, but died before the ceremony), was a favourite theologian of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He is considered by many to be one of the most important - and cultured - Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In fact, he is one of a handful of writers to whom I return for inspiration whenever I despair of the mindless lurching in all directions of so many modern Christian "teachers.” (In other words, I return to him often!) His writing is mystical, biblical and philosophical, with a real lyrical beauty. Mind you, it can also be dense, requiring a fair bit of work on the part of the reader. But such work is always rewarded! 

I share with you today a slab of Balthasar's essay Women Priests? A Marian Church in a Fatherless and Motherless Culture, published in Communio (22.1) in 1995. [It first appeared in 1986, in New Elucidations, trans. Sr. Mary Theresilde Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986)]. The whole essay is worth reading, not least for what Balthasar sees has been lost to us in the "fatherless" and "motherless" mechanised culture in which we now live and its relevance to our contemporary gender debates in general. The pdf can be downloaded from the Communio website HERE.

Over against the old world, whose balance is so endangered, the Church is the beginning of the new cosmos founded in Jesus Christ. In that new cosmos, from its very foundation, the right balance, including a sexual balance, is assured. It is only a matter of recognizing it and living in it. The Church begins with the Yes of the Virgin of Nazareth, which summarizes Israel's faith and brings it to abundant fulfillment: unreserved readiness to conceive, in full freedom, making woman's entire psychophysical fruitfulness available. It is an active fruitfulness, incredibly surpassing all the natural fruitfulness of the woman, which is already superior to that of the man; and it carries, brings forth, nurtures, and educates not just any child, but God's Son. Just as he owes what he is to his eternal Father, so too he owes it to this motherly, ecclesial womb; and he will gradually educate Mary - pierced by the sword - unto the Cross, where he will consecrate her as the mother of his disciple, of the apostles and of the visible ecclesial assembly.

The Twelve whom he commissions and invests with the necessary powers are chosen thirty years later. They receive masculine tasks of leadership and representation within the comprehensive feminine, Marian Church. They begin as failures — this is demonstrated most clearly in the case of Peter — and can never match the quality of the primordial Church, the "perfect Bride," the Immaculata. Their role is a service within the permanent existence of the Church: they are to represent him who, by virtue of the surrender of his entire substance on the Cross, gathers the people of God into himself eucharistically and places it under the Father's great absolution. In view of his selfgiving (by no means in view of any act of Peter), Christ's "preredeemed" Mother has also received the grace to speak her impeccable, infallible Yes. What Peter will receive as "infallibility" for his office of governing will be a partial share in the total flawlessness of the feminine, Marian Church. And what the men, consecrated into their office, receive in the way of power to consecrate and to absolve will again be in its specifically masculine function - the transmission of a vital force that originates outside itself and leads beyond itself - a share in a fruitfulness (before the Eucharist, she gave birth to Christ) and purity (she was absolved from all eternity) belonging nonofficially to the perfect feminine Church.

One can say that Christ, inasmuch as he represents the God of the universe in the world, is likewise the origin of both the feminine and masculine principles in the Church; in view of him, Mary is pre-redeemed. and Peter and the apostles are installed in their office. And insofar as Christ is a man, he again represents the origin, the Father, for the fruitfulness of the woman is always dependent on an original fructification. Neither of these points is to be relativized, nor is the resultant representation of the origin by the Church's office.

A woman who would aspire to this office would be aspiring to specifically masculine functions, while forgetting the precedence of the feminine aspect of the Church over the masculine. With this ecclesial feminism we again arrive at the sphere of what we described in the first section, in which the woman, through a tragic misunderstanding, reaches for what is specifically masculine; except that now it is considerably easier to rectify. The right balance need not be arduously sought, for it is already present in the essence of the Church. In order to perceive this, of course, one must have an eye for the fundamental Marian dimension of the Church, the eye possessed by the Church Fathers, the Middle Ages and even the Baroque period and lost only by us - during the period of the rationalistic Enlightenment. The title "Mother of the Church" represents an attempt to recapture something of the awareness belonging to Christianity for nearly two thousand years. But in this awareness, "Mother" and "Church" were even more closely joined: in the image of the "mantle of grace" for instance, the Church's prototype and the universal Church living within her ambit flow into one another.

If one takes an unbiased stance, one has to marvel at how intensely this prototype, precisely in recent times, by means of active testimonies from heaven, has been offered to the world as a reminder and a point of reflection. From Catherine Labouré to Bernadette at Lourdes, to Beauraing, Banneux and Fatima (to mention only important and recognized instances), the self-testimony of the Ecclesia immaculata is uninterrupted. She is not allowed to hide herself behind her Son in false humility; she comes uninhibitedly to the fore and. manifests her nature: "I am the Immaculate Conception," she insists at Lourdes, and this in connection with the Rosary, which points clearly enough to the divine origin of the Son and of the entire Trinity. The masculine hierarchy was willing enough to recognize the messages of Lourdes and Fatima, and the numerous Marian encyclicals of the popes have underscored the rightful place of woman in the Church's inmost nature.

Because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes. In the dogma of the Trinity, the Persons must be equal in dignity in order to safeguard the distinction that makes the triune God subsistent love; in a similar way, the Church stresses the equal dignity of man and woman, so that the extreme oppositeness of their functions may guarantee the spiritual and physical fruitfulness of human nature. Every encroachment of one sex into the role of the other narrows the range and dynamics of humanly possible love, even when this range transcends the sphere of sexuality, birth and death and achieves the level of the virginal relationship between Christ and his Church, a relationship expressed not in isolated individual acts of specific organs, but in the total surrender of one's own being.

The Church's Marian dimension embraces the Petrine dimension, without claiming it as its own. Mary is "Queen of the Apostles" without claiming apostolic powers for herself. She possesses something else and something more.

But modem man, who has to make (machen) something out of every object, can only with difficulty distinguish authority (Vollmacht) such as Jesus bestows and power (macht). The two are, however, basically different. Ecelesial authority is a specific qualification for service to the community. It is appropriation as expropriation; leadership, but from the last place. One must, therefore, guard against exalting the service of the bishop and the priest to a quality fundamentally inaccessible to women. Like all Christians, women possess this quality eminently in the "universal priesthood" of all the faithful, which allows and basically effects an offering and being-offered of all together with Christ. (In this connection, Cardinal Mercier sowed confusion by proclaiming that the diocesan clergy is the state of perfection.) "Power" is so often unobtrusively behind many contestations and movements, supposedly on behalf of justice, equality and so forth, that, precisely in the case of the theme under consideration here, extreme caution and the most precise discernment of spirits are necessary. Both sexes, each in its own way, aspire to "power" and use the most varied methods to gain it. Power is connected subterraneously with humanity's original sin and concupiscence and, naturally, also makes itself fell as a motive within the Church. It is by no means a prerogative of men.

On the other hand, the ecelesial office, whose contour comes so expressly to the fore in the New Testament and from the earliest tradition onwards, may not be leveled into the other services and charisms in such a way that it appears merely as one single function among others: there is only one "shepherd" of the pastured flock, and this image remains valid even though so many single functions in a community are distributed among lay people, both women and men.

Who has the precedence in the end? The man bearing office, inasmuch as he represents Christ in and before the community, or the woman, in whom the nature of the Church is embodied - so much so that every member of the Church, even the priest, must maintain a feminine receptivity to the Lord of the Church? This question is completely idle, for the difference ought only to serve the mutual love of ail the members in a circulation over which God alone remains sublimely supreme: "In the Lord, the woman is not independent of the man nor the man of the woman. For just as the woman [Eve] comes from the man, so also the man [including Christ] comes through the woman; but everything comes from God" (1 Cor 11:11-12).


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