Is Jesus human, or male?
Published: Feb 8, 2013 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Recently, yet another article on why a male-only Catholic priesthood is sensible has been making the rounds of Facebook. In a National Catholic Reporter, the Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych acknowledges that we cannot really know why Jesus chose only male apostles despite his other counter-cultural acts, but offers some speculation as to the reasons.
His arguments boil down to two very familiar tropes: the maleness of Jesus and the differences between men and women. This post will deal with the first, and a second will explore difference (for another response, see: ‘Imagine a Catholic Church that Loved as only a “Woman” Loves’ by Michele Stopera Freyhauf).
Father Giertych states: “The son of God became flesh, but became flesh not as sexless humanity but as a male,” the implication of which is summarized by his interviewer: since a priest is supposed to serve as an image of Christ, his maleness is essential to that role.
This is the classic argument put forward by Catholics, that the priest stands ‘in persona Christi,’ translated by Orthodox into the ‘iconic argument.’ For the best exposition of this, see Metr. Kallistos Ware’s first article on the subject, published in both 1978 and 1983 as “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ.” Be sure not to confuse it with his extensive 1999 revision, which demonstrates why such liturgical imagery fails in the Orthodox context. Here, I am more interested in the salvific implications of emphasizing Jesus’ maleness, implications which unlike priestly liturgical symbolism, are shared by Catholics and Orthodox.
A fellow Orthodox theologian recenlty summarized this position: ‘the ecumenical formulation of Chalcedon, that Jesus Christ was perfect God and perfect human being, reaffirms this position, i.e. the male character of priesthood.’ This a very dangerous theological argument. If ‘dangerous’ seems strong language, consider the implications of this line of thinking.
Taking seriously the Incarnation is to declare that Christ is fully human. What he has not assumed is not healed. This is a consistent belief of Orthodoxy, and a ‘first principle’ of our entire soteriology: we are able to participate in theosis because Christ has taken on our humanity, all of it. It is also a principle that underlies the legitimacy of Orthodox icons: because Christ took on matter, we can depict in matter Christ as well as all those women and men who exhibit the holiness which the Incarnation makes possible (this is addressed in Chapter 3 of my dissertation, ‘The Glory of Embodied Diversity: Icon, Virtue, Gender).
In the Incarnation, Christ’s humanity includes all that makes both men and women human. If we say that his full humanity leads to the ‘male character’ of any human role or relationship such as priesthood, then we are implying one of two things: either he is not fully human as he did not assume whatever it is that constitutes female humanity, or we declare that only maleness contains full humanity, and that females may not actually be fully human. The former denies the ecumenical formulation of Chalcedon, it constitutes heresy. Orthodox would never agree to such a thing. At least not intentionally.
The second option however, subtly permeates Orthodox and Catholic theology, and, I believe, underlies many of our liturgical practices. We have no dogmatic statement that women are fully human, but we seem to believe it when we assume that women too can participate in theosis. However, the most recent turn in Orthodox arguments against female priests almost universally put forward male headship. This line of thinking, reflected in scripture (though hardly reflecting all of scripture’s portrayal of the relationships between men and women: think Judith, Esther, Miriam, all of whom are hymned as prototypes of the Theotokos), inevitably defines the capabilities and charisms of women according to ‘what’ they are, not ‘who’ they are. Metr. John Zizioulas rightly argues that any such definition fails to account for our full personhood.
On the one hand, our practices perpetuate such a view: female bodies are not permitted in our sacred spaces during the liturgy. The reasons put forward for this have varied in our history, and are quite inconsistent. Given the historical existence of the female diaconate, ordained and receiving the Eucharist in the altar, we know that blood impurity has not always mattered in the Church, as it should not. However we explain it, the visual story we currently narrate through every liturgy confirms a belief that women are not quite as human, or as capable, or as holy, as men.
On the other hand, this is belief is belied by the practice of the saints and their presence among us through icons. Female saints are examples of embodied virtue, that is, theosis. Their presence among us belies any theology that says women are unable to become like Christ. This is affirmed by icons of female saints. Every altar has in it the body of one woman, the Theotokos. Many have more. Which brings us back to the idea that women cannot image Christ: this is exactly what every icon, male or female, does. It brings us into the presence of a person who has embodied Christ through loving God and neighbor in some unique manner. Further, as men and women created in the image of God, every one of us images Christ when we love God and neighbor in our daily lives (addressed, with liturgy, in Chapter 4 of my dissertation, ‘Virtuous Liturgy’).
Our practices do not reflect a Chalcedonian theology of Christ as bearing our full humanity. The fact is, Orthodoxy has never seriously discussed this issue, and the theologoumena (theological opinion) put forward in hasty response has been, as Metr. Anthony once said, demeaning to women. Given our practices, we are simply articulating what we see, and failing to articulate what we (supposedly, hopefully?) believe. Visual theology, that is, our liturgy, is a powerfully persuasive tool.
Perhaps, since we have no dogmatic statement regarding the full humanity of women, we can preserve Christ as the paradigmatic male who is also fully divine and fully human, by dogmatically concluding that women are not fully human. Such a prospect is horrifying to me, but it is a choice that our ecclesial authorities can make via a conciliar council. Needless to say, if such a dogmatic statement were ever to be made, I would happily stand in line with those who refused to cede to the destructive theology of various councils, and make every effort to theologically resist such a statement.