Hans Urs von Balthasar

from "Communio"

The argument from "uninterrupted tradition" in the Church, therefore, must by necessity rest on a reality found within the substance of the Church's structure itself and her sacramental character. Such a reality has to be beyond the Church's power of disposal; for she cannot change herself at will but must accept herself the way she was born. Such a reality, however, would reveal to the faith the full substance of its logic only if considered in the context of the analogia fidei and the total mystery of faith.

This context definitely includes the essential harmony between the order of creation and the order of salvation. The mystical relation of Christ and the Church in the order of salvation represents the overflowing perfection of the mystical relation of man and woman in the order of creation, according to St. Paul's insistence; so much so that the fundamental mystery of creation, in view of its perfection in the mystery of salvation, is called "great."

The natural distinction between the sexes, as distinction, carries a supernatural weight of which it is ignorant. This may lead, outside the Christian revelation, to various corruptions of that distinction; this can lead to a one-sided matriarchy or patriarchy, to the undervaluation of the woman, or eventually to the imposed identification [Gleichschaltung] of the sexes, which destroys all values of sexuality. The incorruptible distinction between Christ and his Church (prefigured, not yet incarnated, by the distinction between Yahweh and Israel) alone sheds a decisive light on the true interrelation of man and woman.

For two thousand years the ordained priesthood was invariably relegated to the man. The Declaration states that this clearly shows how much the Church considers this practice part of her original substance. Of particular importance, at this point, is the evidence found in the Eastern Church, which has never departed from the primitive tradition, even though "her Church Order allows considerable variations in many other areas."

We see, clearly enough, that the deviations in the churches born out of the Reformation are the result of a changed and weakened view of the relationship between the congregation and the apostolic office.

This relationship, by and large, is no longer based on the actual apostolic succession and thus on the structure of the apostolic Church but rather on the common priesthood of all believers. The Catholic as well as the Orthodox Church, however, considers the notion of apostolic succession as decisive. The early Church was clearly a structured community which gathered around the ministerial office which came from Christ to the believing congregation, with the authority to proclaim the word and administer the sacraments.

Such she would remain throughout the centuries because the authority was always handed on in factual and personal succession. Continuity with the origins, in the Catholic and Orthodox view, resides not just in the deposit of faith, but equally in the episcopal office, the agent responsible for the purity of that faith which also comprises belief in Christ's Real Presence in the Sacrament.

This episcopal office had been prepared, at the least, by Christ before the existence of an actual congregation when he called the Twelve and vested them with authority (see Mk 3:14f.). For this "authority" was already christological: power to proclaim Christ's message in his name, and to subdue the anti-Christian spirits in the strength of the Holy Spirit.

This means that here, apparently already near the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus granted others to participate in his specific messianic mission. And the mission of the Messiah, already in the expectation of the Old Testament, was to represent God and his definitive salvific action among his people. This foundation makes any apostolic office primarily a call--and so a responsibility--to represent God, or more specifically, Jesus Christ.

Representation, however, appears as a strange two sided reality. At first it means something positive: the one representing has been authorized by the one he represents to make present some of the latter's superiority or dignity, yet without being able to claim any of this superiority or dignity for himself; and this is the negative side.

This double aspect makes the notion of representation, and therefore the apostolic office, so vulnerable and so open to abuse. In the natural order of the sexes, according to St. Paul, the one representing God and his glory (doxa) in creation is the man (1 Cor 11:7). But it is impressed on him that he is only reflected glory, not glory itself: "For as woman was made from man [in Genesis], so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God" (1 Cor 11:12).

In the supernatural Christian order, which rests on the natural order as its foundation, the two-sided character comes out even more distinctly: the apostle as "God's steward" is exhibited "as last of all" precisely because he represents Christ; he is the servant of all, who deems it normal that "we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute" (1 Cor 4:9f.).

Catholic tradition with its conception of actual succession always kept the awareness, at the very least as an undercurrent, of that unbridgeable two-sidedness of priestly representation. True, because of sinful disregard, the positive aspect of such representation has often been unjustly accentuated in an arrogant clericalism, all the way to the exaltation of the priest as "another Christ"-something entirely impossible!

And yet, there was always the reminder as well, coming from the saints but also from the Church's leaders, that the apostolic office is no more than service for and in the Church. And because this service requires specific qualifications, it is all the more only service; service, that is, of transmitting divine gifts which the priest in no way possesses by himself nor essentially in himself. Such gifts he transmits, as official minister, more readily if he makes himself totally into a simple instrument of transmission.

All this, however, becomes transparent only if we look at the subject for which the male apostolic service is to be exercised: the Church of Christ's faithful, always appearing as "female" in the New Testament--not to mention the Old Testament images of Israel as the "spouse" of Yahweh.

In the Church's profound self-understanding, well founded in the New Testament, this feminine character of the Church is really as deeply rooted in tradition as the relegation of the apostolic office to the male. Patristic theology and scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, even as late as the Baroque, saw the Church as the Mother of the faithful and the Bride of Christ. Portals of cathedrals depict her as the exalted woman opposite the crushed synagogue. She is shown in countless miniatures as the only one standing under the cross, catching Christ's blood with the uplifted sacred chalice.

Especially in Eastern theology, she appears as the definitive incarnation of the divine Sophia [Wisdom], the one who gathers and nurtures in her womb all the seeds of the Logos [Word] scattered throughout creation and the history of salvation.

At this point, I am compelled to mention two books by Louis Bouyer: the first Le Trone de la Sagesse [Throne of Wisdom], is somewhat older (1957); the other, Woman in the Church (Ignatius, 1979), is more recent, and explicitly deals with our topic. Bouyer's main intention is to elucidate the sexual and personal role of the woman, before even considering the female character of the Church: the man as sexual being merely represents what he is not and transmits what he does not really possess, and so it simultaneously more, and less, than himself. The woman, however, reposes in herself and is entirely her own being, namely, the total reality of a created being facing God as his partner, receiving, retaining, maturing, and nurturing his seed and his Spirit.

This thesis of Bouyer bears questioning, which we shall do elsewhere. But to begin with we simply have to recognize its central content, all the more because it represents the core of a certain tradition in the Church, which is here purified of all marginal dross and confusion caused by hellenistic antifeminism (which, in part, echoes through patristic and medieval times).

It is simply unfortunate that this liberation and restoration of a great tradition, a tradition that parallels the priestly office, should occur at a time when all the richness, which springs from the differentiation between the specific properties of the two sexes, is more and more forgotten and intentionally suppressed. Under the guise of equality and equalization of the sexes, the goal is being pursued to masculinize the entire civilization, which even now is marked by male technological rationality.

By further putting the sexual sphere at the disposal of every technological manipulation, the person-centered height and depth of sexual differentiation is lost. All "services" become equalized and therefore interchangeable; and even though the man cannot conceive and give birth, why should this keep the woman from assuming all those seemingly asexual "services" in the Church, which are entrusted to the man?

A certain concept of masculinity which reduces the spirit to nothing more than an object-and banishes all sexuality into a lower, mere physiological region-is overvalued nowadays. More than anything else, it is this overvaluing which stands in the way of an appreciation for the Church's position as she clings to her tradition. Here, too, it is true that gratia supponit naturam [grace builds on nature].

Restoring the harmony of nature would bring to light--within the equality of both sexes in essence and value the profound difference which assigns to the woman not representation, but being; and to the man the task to represent, making him more, and at the same time less, than himself. As far as he is more, he is the "head" of the woman, and in the Christian context he is mediator of God's gifts. As far as he is less, however, he is dependent on the woman as nurturing shelter and model of completion.

This is not the place to discuss in detail this difference within the equality of essence. First of all, the investigation would have to center on Christ as a male, in the context, however, of the Eucharist where he makes himself-complete as individual and beyond any sexual connotation-into God's seed which is given to the Church. Then the participation of the apostolic office in this all-sexuality-transcending male fertility should be considered, though this is very difficult to formulate. If this dimension could fully be brought to light, only then would the previously latent inferiority of the man in relation to the woman be somehow overcome. It must suffice here to have hinted at this concept.

It should fill a woman with elation to know that she is the privileged place where God is able and willing to be received into this world. The primary instance here is Mary, Virgin and Mother. But there exists an inner continuity between the singular Incarnation of God's Word in Mary, and his constantly renewed advent in the receiving Church.

This, and only this, is the decisive Christian event; and as long as there are men in the Church, whether holding an office or not, they cannot escape being part of this all-embracing femininity of the Church modeled after Mary. Right from the beginning the Church, even Church in perfection, is realized in Mary, long before any apostolic office exists. Such office, in its representation, remains of secondary instrumentality precisely because its representatives are imperfect (see St. Peter!). Its reality is such that the grace it transmits is essentially not diminished by this imperfection.

Whoever holds office has to aim at overcoming his deficiency as much as he can; but not by conforming more to Christ as far as he is Head of the Church, rather by learning to offer, in his own life, Mary's "Yes" more convincingly to the triune God.

The Church's tradition, then, as becomes evident from all this, has roots much deeper than a first glance would lead to believe. It reaches way down into depths which cannot be fully plumbed. And still, what little we are able to catch and form into stammering words shows us that this tradition is justified and immune to the changes of time and opinion (including opinions about the proper role of the sexes).

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