Nate Nelson

"Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come."
- Hebrews 13:14
"Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth."
- Eucharistic Prayer III
"The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance." - Pope Benedict XVI

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Priests, Love Your Faithful...

From Damien's Spot: According to Catholic News Service, Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, used a recent homily for the installation of a new rector at the Pontifical North American College to take up his predecessor's favorite pastime: gay-bashing. Not only did Cardinal Levada say that the new instruction against the ordination of gay seminarians is relevant to the U.S. sexual abuse crisis, implying that gay priests bear the primary responsibility for that scandal -- he also misused the scriptural and traditional imagery of Christ and the Church as Bridegroom and Bride to assault the priestly ministry of existing gay priests:

The doctrinal chief said he wanted to look specifically at "the situation of the gay priest who announces his homosexuality publicly, a few examples of which we have recently heard reported" in reaction to the Vatican document.

"I think we must ask, 'Does such a priest recognize how this act places an obstacle to his ability to represent Christ the bridegroom to his bride, the people of God? Does he not see how his declaration places him at odds with the spousal character of love as revealed by God and imaged in humanity?'" he said.


The spousal imagery of Christ and the Church is a favorite theme of Vatican discrimination; the Vatican has been using the same spousal imagery since at least the publication of Inter Insigniores in 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explaining in part that women could not be ordained to the priesthood because they cannot, so the Congregation said, properly image Christ as Head of the Church. Thus the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith established in 1976 that priests must be men like Christ. Apparently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would now like to establish that priests must be heterosexual men like Christ -- although, mind you, there is no evidence that Christ actually was heterosexual (or homosexual), unless you believe Dan Brown.

And I wonder how far this ontological similarity is going to be carried? Perhaps soon we will have to begin forcing Jews to convert to Christianity again, since Christ was a Jew. Does that mean that all priests must be Jewish Christians in order to image Christ properly? Are all sacraments invalid if presided over by Gentile priests? For that matter, are all sacraments invalid if presided over by gay priests? If the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith establishes that gay men cannot properly image Christ and thus cannot receive the sacrament of holy orders -- and that's the direction it's headed in, from the way Cardinal Levada is talking -- that means that gay men were never able to properly image Christ, that they never validly received holy orders, and that all sacraments presided over by gay priests would have been invalid. That's quite a pickle! Maybe we should bring back Limbo after all. Do you know how many baptisms, confirmations, eucharists, reconciliations, anointings, marriages, and ordinations would be invalid now? There would be Catholics walking around who may never have received a valid sacrament, dead Catholics who were never baptized, never had Last Rites. It would be the biggest sacramental crisis in the history of the Church.

Of course, there is no crisis if you're still a Catholic who repudiates the Donatist heresy. That heresy was condemned by St. Augustine and several popes. But it seems that Donatism is once again on the rise.

There is a scriptural basis for the spousal imagery of Christ's relationship to the Church; it's found in Ephesians 5:21-33, building upon what Christ had already taught about his spousal relationship to the People of God:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 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. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.


This passage from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians has always been used by the Church for the purpose of discrimination. In earlier times, Ephesians 5 was used by the Church to encourage the subjugation of women in marriage, completely ignoring the responsibility that a husband has to his wife (which is seemingly much more important in the passage since more time is spent discussing it). Since at least 1976, the Church has officially used the imagery of Ephesians 5 to exclude women from the priesthood. And now it seems that Cardinal Levada would like to use the imagery of Ephesians 5 to exclude gay men from the priesthood.

This imagery can be taken too far, and it has been. Are we really to believe that the reason Jesus and St. Paul used spousal imagery was to provide ammunition for the Church to later use against female and gay ordination? Was Jesus really trying to set rigid gender restrictions by speaking of himself as Bridegroom to the Church, and was St. Paul really trying to set rigid gender restrictions by expanding Christ's teaching? It seems that the Church's teaching authority is missing the point entirely, but we'll get to that in a moment.

How much further are we supposed to take the gender restrictions that are supposedly imposed by this spousal imagery? If those who represent Christ (priests) must exclusively be heterosexual men in order to image his spousal relationship to the Church, doesn't it follow that the Church's faithful must all be heterosexual women in order to image the Church's spousal relationship to Christ? Does that mean that the Church should excommunicate all heterosexual men who are not priests and all homosexual women? And what about those priests? It's true that priests stand in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), which is why the Church says that they must be men -- and now heterosexual men. But it is also true that priests stand in persona Ecclesiae (in the person of the Church). How can they do that if they're men? Are we saying that priests in the Catholic Church must all be bisexual and intersexual?

Saying that the faithful must all be heterosexual women or that all priests should be bisexual and intersexual is, of course, absurd. But it's precisely in this absurdity that the absurdity of the teaching authority's position is revealed. If it is absurd to follow the argument to its logical conclusion, then the argument itself is absurd from its beginning. The teaching authority's argument has misused the beautiful spousal imagery foreshadowed in the Old Testament, proposed by Christ, and expanded by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians and by the Church's apostolic tradition. The spousal imagery was not intended to establish rigid gender restrictions for the priesthood, and the spousal imagery should not be misused in this way.

That doesn't mean that the spousal imagery applied to Christ and the Church has no meaning for the Church today. The most obvious meaning is the one that St. Paul gives to the imagery: that husbands and wives should behave toward one another in the same way that Christ and the Church behave toward one another, with absolute love, fidelity, and respect. I daresay that these principles of love, fidelity, and respect could even be applied to relationships between people of the same gender, although the teaching authority would reject that idea out of hand.

But does this spousal imagery have any implications for the way the ordained priesthood and the lay faithful behave toward one another? Of course it does. But the meaning doesn't lie in the rigid gender restrictions currently proposed by the teaching authority. The real meaning of this spousal imagery for the way that the priesthood and the faithful interact is lost on the teaching authority, because the teaching authority has become unaccustomed to behaving as Christ would to the faithful. But the real meaning behind this spousal imagery could have a revolutionary impact on the way that priesthood and faithful relate to one another, if we'd let it. If we'd let it, this teaching could establish a relationship between the priesthood and the faithful which would be based upon love, fidelity, and respect like that found in marriages or, more perfectly, in the way that Christ himself relates to the Church.

The problem is that this teaching would require everyone from the pope to the last deacon, and all clergy in between, to love the faithful "even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her." It would require all clergy from the pope to the last deacon to love the faithful "as their own bodies," realizing that pastors who love their parishioners love themselves. "For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body." Some priests and deacons already relate to the faithful in this way. My own pastor is one of them. Certainly, many gay pastors also relate to the faithful in this way. But I don't think I'll hold my breath for the pope and some of the bishops.

I think they should work on it, though. Maybe when they do, the rest of us will think about working on that gender thing. But then again, maybe when they do, nobody will be thinking about that gender thing anymore.