Anthony Howe considers the supposed Marian argument for women priests and shows how it can only undermine the very doctrine it appeals to
There are, it is said, clear parallels between the role of Mary and the role of the priest. When Mary gave birth, Jesus was made present for humanity. When the priest utters the words of consecration, once again Jesus becomes present. Thus, because the priest is performing a role akin to that of Mary, it should be wholly appropriate that this role be open to those who share Mary’s gender.
It is a simple and attractive argument, playing as it does upon the incarnational nature of Christianity which rejoices in the restoration of fallen humanity to the dignity that Christ won for it. I am not convinced. Far from being incarnational, this particular parallel or typology of Our Lady with priesthood strikes at the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation.
Jesus fully human
Let me explain. The doctrine of the incarnation is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is the belief that Jesus Christ is at once both true God and true man. He is not simply one or the other; neither is he half man, half God. It is precisely because Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human that his birth, life, death and resurrection are important, since in becoming human, God canonizes (makes godly) the human experience.
By becoming a human like us, God makes it possible for us to be like him. For this to happen, Jesus needed, as all humans do, a mother and a father. And so it was that just as Jesus’ godhead was that of his Father, so his humanity was that of his Mother.
This is fundamental to our understanding of who Jesus was. Every human feature, even perhaps his mannerisms, came from Mary his mother. That is how it is. Jesus’ flesh was hers. If this were not so, then Jesus would not be human at all. It was to make this point that the early Church defined Mary as Theotokos (God bearer or Mother of God); not so as to elevate her, but to make clear that Jesus was as much Mary’s human son as he was the son of God.
This should all be familiar, but let us be clear: what happens at Mass is not the same as what happened in the stable in Bethlehem. Whilst the consequences of both are that Jesus becomes present, the processes are very different.
Work of the Spirit
As we have seen, when Jesus was born, he took the flesh of Mary. Thus, in some way, she determined who Jesus was. But this is absolutely not the case when a priest celebrates the Mass. Far from depending on the personality of a particular priest, the Blessed Sacrament is the same Jesus, wherever and whenever it becomes present. It does not bear the personal mark of the priest, because the priest, unlike Mary, does not give birth to Christ on the altar. By putting forward an argument that parallels Christ’s birth with the appearance of his body and blood on the altar, its proponents are, unwittingly, falling into the trap of elevating the priesthood into something it is not.
Although Jesus becomes present through the ministrations of the priest, it is not because of him. In no sense is it true that the priest somehow gives birth to Jesus on the altar. It is the Holy Spirit that is at work. It could, therefore, be said in rather crude terms that Jesus passes through the priest by the Spirit’s action. But this is absolutely not what happened to Mary. To state that Jesus only passed through her would be to relegate her role to that of a surrogate mother. But if Mary was not Jesus’ real mother, then Jesus was not a real human and the incarnation itself is rendered meaningless.
That should, surely, be the final nail in the coffin for this incarnational argument. The parallel simply does not work. The attempt to combine a Catholic understanding of priesthood and the incarnation of Jesus, with this particular typology of Our Lady, will only end up distorting our understanding either of what a priest is, or Mary, or both. Let the proponents for women’s ordination call on witnesses for their case, but let not Our Lady be one of them.