In the last few days, two friends and colleagues have asked what I think of the many reports that Pope Francis called for ‘the creation of a commission‘ to study ‘reinstating’ female deacons. Thanks to the Crusty Old Dean I do not need to point out (though I will remind) that declaring the usefulness of a study is hardly a commitment to anything; that recollecting a conversation with some unnamed former professor is hardly a particularly articulate reflection of the extensive historical work already done on the female diaconate1 ; and that on this, the Orthodox actually beat the Catholics to the punch.2

The truth is, though, that a well written call to expand the diaconate by a Catholic bishop, the continued practice of female deacons among the Armenians, or a call for its restoration among the Copts or both a call for and rumored actual restoration among the Greeks all fail to address the fundamental theological failures which underlie any discussion of the participation of women in the ministries of the church, no matter which priestly ministry3 is at issue: can a woman stand in persona Christi?4

In Persona Christi

As Pope Francis noted to the women religious before him:

there is “no problem” for women to give reflections or homilies at prayer services, but that during the Mass the priest is serving “in persona Christi” and is therefore the person to give the homily.

Here Francis reflects long-standing Catholic arguments (borrowed by Orthodox and still repeated among some in the Anglican communion) against female priests and bishops: to represent Christ, one must be a male as Christ was male. It does not matter if the focus of Christ’s liturgical work is Word (which is, frankly, a bit of a surprising emphasis for the Catholic Francis) or Sacrament (the far more typical emphasis among Catholics and Orthodox): to stand as Christ before the people of God one must be male.5

However, this raises a significant theological problem: for whom is the Incarnation of God in Christ? Men, women, or all created in the image of God?

For us and for our salvation….

The theology of the Nicene Creed rests on a particular understanding of creation, incarnation, and salvation which permeated the theology of the early church (by which I mean the first few hundred years not the first few decades). 1 Peter 1:4 states that he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may … become participants in the divine nature.” Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202) reminds us that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself” (Against Heresies, Bk 5., preface). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) says that “the Word of God became a human so that you might learn from a human how to become a god’ (Exortation to the Greeks, 1); Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (c. 296–373) echoes Clement: “For the Son of God became human so that we might become God [gods].” (On the Incarnation, 54, 3). Perhaps most famous of all, Gregory of Nazianzus, explicitly arguing for the trinitarian and incarnational theology which produced the Nicene Creed, gives us the oft-repeated (at least among Orthodox) phrase: “That which He has not assumed, He has not healed” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101).

The very possibility of salvation, of being healed of the sickness that is our fear-filled denial of love, of being fully restored into the image of God given to us at creation, rests in what God has done in Christ: become fully human. If God did not become fully human in Christ, enabling us to become like God, then we are not able to be healed, to stands as co-workers with God in Christ as lovers of God, neighbor and creation. To declare that any person cannot stand in persona Christi, whether in liturgy or life, is to declare one of two things: either that Christ did not actually take on full humanity, but only that humanity which can actually bear him, which is, in the situation discussed here, only male humanity; or, that some human beings cannot bear in their particular bodies the life and healing which is God’s gift to us in the incarnation.

A Creedal Faith:

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed rejects, explicitly, the claim that Jesus Christ only ‘seemed’ human. It declares emphatically the full humanity of Christ. The church, in its wisdom, stands by the full humanity (and divinity, but that is not at issue here) of Christ. This means that Christ took on all that is human. Period. We do not understand how it is that a Palestinian Jewish male took on the humanity of all nations, races, sexes, genders or abilities. We see in Jesus all that it is to be fully human (as an ethicist, I would argue that  this is because we see in Jesus all that it is to treat one another with virtue as beloved neighbors, but that is another discussion), and we know that in Christ, God bears all our humanity.

However, if some beings cannot bear Christ the fully human because the fully human Christ did not actually bear them, then all that is left is the belief that these beings are not fully human. The church, in its foolishness, has been quite ready to deny the full humanity of bodies that are not fully formed, fully able men. Women, the disabled, the ambiguously sexed and gendered, have all been denied, in one way or another, the fullness of their humanity. Their ‘natures’ are incomplete and need to be rejected, repented, or grieved.

The theological problem however, is this: if one believes that only men can symbolize or iconographically represent Christ, one either undermines the full divinity and humanity of Christ, thereby denying women the possibility of salvation, or one undermines the fullness of the image of God borne by women.

In other words, to believe that any person cannot stand in persona Christi by virtue of their body is to deny either the full embodiment of God in the incarnation, or the full humanity of the body in question. No amount of denial, caveats, exemptions, or “yes buts” changes the fundamental problem created by this theology.

If you believe that only men can stand in persona Christi, then you must make a choice, incarnation or the imago dei: one must go.

  1. See the work of Phyllis Zagano (Catholic), Teva Regule (A Romanian-American in the Antiochian Archdiocese of America), John Karmiris and Evangelos Theodorou (Church of Greece), and Valerie Karras and Kyriaki FitzGerald (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America). 
  2. I appreciate the Crusty Old Dean’s reminder of that Orthodoxy has addressed this, but that as far as “the Western media’s fascination with the Pope is concerned, we all know nothing is real unless the Roman Catholic Church does it. So let’s spill a lot more ink about Pope Francis speculating on a possible commission to study the question than point out an actual, real, Eastern Orthodox Church has voted to restore the female diaconate.” To be quite honest, I consider the frequent ignorance of the theological work of the Eastern churches, especially by Catholics (and I have a PhD from a Jesuit School, so I know this reality well), to be insulting, frustrating, and a tragic reflection of the deeply broken church for with we are all responsible. To be fair, Orthodox can be so horribly polemical that the beauty of much of their theology gets lost in vitriol and specious condemnation of ‘the West.’ But still. Seriously. Pay attention. 
  3. The three priestly ordinations of bishop, priest and deacon are both a reflection of our shared baptismal priesthood (itself an ordination), and the recognition of and responsibility for distinct charisms within the church. They are not a continuation of one another, but each their own charismatic function within God’s people. 
  4. Lest you think that the argument of in persona Christi speaks only to bishops and priests, it is worth noting that one of the earliest theologians of the tripartite ministry, Ignatius of Antioch repeatedly associates the bishop with God (Eph. 5.3, 6.1; Smyr. 8.1, 9.1; Mag. 3.1, 3.2, 6.1; Tral. 3.1, Poly. insc.), the presbyters with the apostles (Tral. 2.2, 3.1; Mag. 6.1; Smyr. 8.1), and the deacons with Christ (Tral. 3.1; Mag. 6.1;). 
  5. It is an entirely different issue, but vitally important, to note that the priest, as Metr. Kallistos Ware has argued, also stands ‘in persona ecclesia.’ The reality is that in the liturgy the priest stands not only as Christ, but also the laos, the co-workers of God, the people. 

10 thoughts

  1. ::stands up and cheers your confrontational title::

    “but that during the Mass the priest is serving “in persona Christi” and is therefore the person to give the homily.”

    Except that deacons may also preach.
    And so may concelebrating priests, especially if they are visiting to raise money for a good cause.

    “if one believes that only men can symbolize or iconographically represent Christ, one either undermines the full divinity and humanity of Christ,thereby denying women the possibility of salvation,”

    At least, denying women the possibility of salvation in Christ, and feeding into certain radical post-Christian feminist ideas that women require a woman saviour.

    “To be quite honest, I consider the frequent ignorance of the theological work of the Eastern churches, especially by Catholics (and I have a PhD from a Jesuit School, so I know this reality well), to be insulting, frustrating, and a tragic reflection of the deeply broken church for with we are all responsible.”

    As a Catholic, I find it shameful, embarrassing, and a tragic reflection, etc. I think the reason is that in the wake of the Reformation, Catholicism defined itself over against Protestantism, so that’s where 99.9% of our energy goes. But still.

    “It is an entirely different issue, but vitally important, to note that the priest, as Metr. Kallistos Ware has argued, also stands ‘in persona ecclesia.’”

    Oh hey, I’ve been saying that for years; but now I have a more authoritative source to cite.🙂

    Thanks for this excellent post.

    1. Gaudete, note Vladimir’s citation of Ware. It is from his 1999 article on women in the priesthood which is a significant revision of his first version.

      As for deacons, did you notice the footnote on Ignatius? He is hardly consistent in his typologies, but he frequently associates the deacons with Christ, and the Priest with Apostles. So ordaining women deacons b/c they don’t stand ‘in persona Christi’ isn’t exactly consistent with historical understandings of the diaconate.

      But the argument isn’t really about history as we only bandy about the phrase when we need an excuse to exclude women.

  2. His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia the titular metropolitan of the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Great Britain, offers an interesting and, perhaps to many, surprising theological perspective on the nature of a female priesthood in the “canonical” Eastern Orthodox Church. He writes that unlike Roman Catholicism “at no point in the actual prayer of consecration does the priest speak in persona Christi.” Rather, the Orthodox priest speaks during the Anaphora “in persona Ecclesiae, as the representative not of Christ but of the Church.” As a result, the “iconic argument against the ordination of women is bound to seem less conclusive to Orthodox Christians than it does to Roman Catholics.”

    1. Thanks Vladimir. You cited the passage I made reference to in a footnote. What currently strikes me is that in the West, the priest rarely does stand ‘in persona Ecclesiae.’ Franics notes this in his comments as well, but I am saving his misuse of iconic arguments (also misused by Orthodox) for a separate post.

  3. Clearly written. Important theology from shared Christian history which informs our current imperfect praxis. Thank you, Dr. McDowell.

  4. I heard a theologian once say that if women cannot stand “in persona Christi” then Christ did not redeem women. Those who oppose female ordination don’t just say that there is no precedence (that we would be disobeying God if women were ordained) but they claim that it is impossible for the sacrament of orders to “work” on women. The latter argument suggest to me that Christ is incompatible with women. What does such a belief mean for female discipleship and salvation? Why can women represent Christ to others in their day-to-day lives but they cannot in the sacramental life of the Church? Vatican II does emphasize the priesthood that we all share by virtue of our baptisms. Why can women be “ordinary” priests but not sacramental priests?

    1. These are great questions, and why I think that such an argument undermines creedal affirmations that I don’t think the Vatican wants undermined. But then, I am not sure that they are really thinking this through very carefully, I think they are reacting, and that is always a problem.

      1. Theologian Catherine Keller in her book, FACE OF THE DEEP, points out how deeply embedded fear of woman is rooted in Genesis and the ancient myths that preceded Genesis. The “In Persona Christi” argument is not about reason; it’s about fear that the whole of Roman Rite theology will unravel.

        Great article, Maria, right down to the footnotes! Loved your acknowledgement of the Eastern Church contribution to Catholicism. You might like our website, or google Rite Beyond Rome.

        Thanks and blessings!

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