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The Gender Drama

August 29, 2015

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post by T. Renee Kozinski.  She  has her Masters in the Liberal Arts from the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College, Annapolis, and is a teacher, poet, and artist. She is an online tutor with Great Books Discussions.


A recently published article by Benedict Constable at OnePeter5 attempts to provide premises for the conclusion that women lectors fly in the face of not only Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition, but also the Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding of form and matter necessary, first, to have the liturgy be a true remembrance or re-calling of the drama of the Last Supper; and second, to enable a full understanding of the liturgy through the symbolism of masculine and feminine.

Indeed, if one looks at the liturgy, the family, indeed, the entire life of the Church as a kind of supernatural drama that builds upon nature, then the relationship of masculine to feminine is both a natural reality and a supernatural lesson, going beyond worldly masculinity and femininity, to active and receptive charity, of God giving of himself to His bride.

Also, if the liturgy, the worship rubric handed down through two thousand years from the Apostles, is “the source and summit” of this Christian communal life (though not it’s final end, which is rather both an individual and communal beatific vision in charity with God in heaven), then the “drama” or “sign” of the liturgy is for human beings, essential: it forms us.

The Greeks understood this, implicitly, though in a kind of fogged way. The dramas held just outside the sacred grove of Dionysius at the foot of the Parthenon in Athens were more, much more, than entertainment. They were sub-creations, full of signs that were meant to “order” and “heal” the community. Mimesis or the imitation-signs of drama, Aristotle says, is the fundamental way human beings learn—by imitating, and by seeing imitations of, not only natural ethics, but also the relationship of the human being to the supernatural realities.

So, the Catholic liturgy is cultic, the real drama that shows us, through a kind of natural and supernatural mimesis, that the supernatural imbues and sanctifies and raises the material to transform it to what it was meant to be: our nature, our body and soul both natural and supernatural at the same time, as the Eucharist is both God and Man at the same time. It shows us the love to folly of God, Who will lay Himself, body and soul, down for the other, which is a kind of baptised eros. In this, the material is transformed as Mary’s womb becomes capable of holding God, as Christ in His body was transformed on Mount Tabor and in the Resurrection.

We can say that the eros of masculine and feminine is a mimetic sign pointing us to something greater: the fecundity and transforming nature of charity that holds no disputed boundary between supernatural and natural. This is the essential “plot” of the drama of the liturgy and also the life of the Church at large, helping us live in a small way the supernatural eros and fruitfulness of the Trinity Itself.

Back to the “No Women Lectors!” article. The writer makes this argument: The masculine is the active, seed-giving principle; teaching is a form of seeding; reading is a form of teaching; thus, only men, who are the “seeders,” should read at the liturgy. And in the Church at large, the “hearers”—which are all of us, male or female, are, in relation to the seeded Word, feminine. This little drama of the reader teaches us semiotically that the Word of God must enter us as a seed to be nourished. This makes logical sense. There are some questions I have, though: If teaching is, semiotically, a masculine activity only properly done by a male person, why do we have women Doctors of the Church? Why then are women the majority of catechists?

I think the writer might answer that in the life of the Church at large, women are individuals also with gifts of teaching, of seeding, but that the liturgy is something different. However, if the liturgy is the source and summit of Christian life, then it would seem that this idea of “reader as only a male” would teach a message that is not lived out in reality in the Church. I make a distinction between the priest acting as Christ, a specific male, and a lector who is not acting for a specific male person.

Also, seeding is not only a masculine activity. The ancients, including Aquinas, did not understand that the feminine body also seeds, that the reality of this fundamental natural sign, that of procreative activity, is a joint seeding, a joint fertility, not one seeding the formless, lifeless prime matter of the other. This mistake had, I believe, profound ramifications not only in philosophy but also in the life of the Church. The idea that the masculine is the only active, forming agent is false. It is rather that the drama is one of attraction of two equally forming agents, one of which empties himself out, and the other who actively, not passively, receives one seed into another seed that has been also given by her. Also, masculine and feminine are essentially incomplete without each other because they are together a whole through which they give life to another, for whom they must lay down their lives as one.

In other words, the reader is not the same as the priest, or even the altar server, who is on a path towards ordination to be an alter Christus. Rather, a reader is a person who is performing a gifting to the Church, the reality of the Word, who becomes joined with God in speaking. I wonder if having both men and women read at the liturgy expresses, for the male, a self-emptying, and for the female, a growth, an expansion.

Nevertheless, my real question and concern has to do less with whether or not women should be lectors but rather with what this question brings up: The apparent lack of development in terms of what the women bring to the liturgy and to the life of the Church. It seems that the traditional liturgical drama is that the feminine should be silent, hidden, ignored, kept away—“Make sure they’re off the altar!” Was this a reaction to the pervasive goddess worship in pagan cultures? Was it a mistake about the semiotic of the procreative act?

I am not for women taking a man’s role in the drama: I generally do not like dramas that play with gender, making them interchangeable. This destroys the power of the polarity of gender, the profound difference that moves with nuclear force towards unity and fruitfulness. In the life of the Church, rather than mis-development (or “miss”-development) in the liturgy so that women need to demand to have the same roles as men, I see an underdevelopment in terms of the semiotic role of women. If this is the case, then not only is the feminine suppressed, feared, and ignored, but the masculine is also impoverished: Adam was in solitude, alone, and this was not good. Eve, as a rescuer of Adam from his original solitude, was not, as Pia de Solenni says, taken from his head to rule him, or from his feet to serve him; rather she was taken from his side to be one with him. Where does underdevelopment create passivity, not unity, for the feminine in the summit of the life of the Church?

It could be argued well, though, that the congregation at the liturgy is the feminine part of the Mass. The issues I have with this are these: In a dramatic/symbolic sense, is there a clear sense among Catholics that this is the active, life-expanding feminine in action? Is the feminine here seen as a gift or as a passive, lower, dispensable activity? Is not the congregation non-essential (a valid Mass can be celebrated without this feminine aspect)? If so, perhaps there is a problematic message given here, and creating a space for women to be lectors in the feminine sense of expansion, growth, and hearing may be worthwhile talking about, if we can understand St. Paul in an orthodox way that might allow this.

The writer of the article also uses St. Paul’s admonition that women should not speak in church, but should rather “ask their husbands at home.” But if St. Paul is talking about lectoring, why would a woman need to ask her husband about it? Didn’t she hear it herself? I wonder rather if St. Paul is talking about the organization of the agape feast before the Sacrifice, or perhaps the discussion in the life of the church, which perhaps took place in the church, around political and economic issues. I also, in general, feel that we need more understanding of St. Paul that takes into account the reality of a woman’s equal dignity and her real, individual relationship with God.
Thus, I would change the question: Not “Should women be lectors?” but rather, “Where is the drama that includes the essential role of the feminine in the life of the Church?” Until this is articulated and developed, until Woman is not just tolerated but understood, these questions will only, I think, create more damage.Men should ask themselves, “Would I want to be a woman in the life of the Church?” in the same way that white people in our culture should ask themselves, “Would I want to be black in our society?” This question is meant to be provocative in the sense that it may make clear the oppression that has been part of our Church history and is a wound needing to be healed—through drama.

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20 Comments
  1. David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
    August 29, 2015 12:41 pm

    First, let me thank you publicly for this interesting post. I think you have raised a very important question about the limitations of Aristotelian biology (indeed, its fundamental error on the subject of male and female fertility) and the consequences this has for scholastic (or in this case neo-scholastic) theology. I wonder if this could be pushed further by examining Christ himself in terms of both the masculine and feminine. If there is, as St. Paul says, neither male nor female in Christ, in what sense is he referring to the head as well as to the body? In what ways does Christ embody, or perhaps better, ensoul the feminine. If, as is traditionally held, the feminine is passive and acted upon, then this is the crucifixion: Christ led, passively, to his death. Now St. John describes this in more active language: Christ states that he himself lays his life down. But elsewhere Christ even describes his resurrection in passive terms: the Father will raise him up.

    Given this, then I think we need to examine more carefully the liturgical role of the priest: in what way, if he is alter Christus, does he manifest the feminine in Christ?

    • Alexandra permalink
      August 29, 2015 3:10 pm

      Scholars in the past based their philosophy on their understanding of contemporary science. I am baffled by the refusal of many contemporary Catholic hierarchs to discard philosophical principals based on outdated and erroneous science.
      Today we know that much of our concept of what is “masculine” and “feminine” is based on societal constructs.
      I truly don’t understand what ought to be “male” and “female” roles in the Church. The proposition that there ought to be such roles appears to me preposterous.
      Perhaps the institutional Catholic Church ought to think deeply and humbly about the fact that almost all of the other Christian Churches have female clergy. That just might indicate something important.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
        August 29, 2015 8:50 pm

        Not all Christian churches have female clergy. The Orthodox do not, and I suspect that outside the US and Western Europe many Protestant denominations do not either.

        • Alexandra permalink
          August 30, 2015 6:29 pm

          I did not say all, David. Though I should have said “many” instead of “most”. An article on wikipedia, “Ordination of Women in Protestant Churches”, with many footnotes that can be checked, shows that many churches do.
          Pentecostal churches often have female pastors. In South and Central America, those are the churches with the greatest growth.

  2. David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
    August 29, 2015 12:44 pm

    A second comment: I am posting this separately so that it is easier, if folks want, for two comment threads to develop. You write

    “even the altar server, who is on a path towards ordination”

    This point has been thrashed several times on this blog (google altar server and vox nova) and no one has made a convincing argument supporting this reason for reserving altar service to boys alone, and I am firmly of the camp that as a lay ministry it should be open to both young men and young women. At the risk of a digression, would you care to develop this point further?

  3. Tami Wrye Kozinski permalink
    August 29, 2015 2:14 pm

    Thanks, David. I find your points about Christ as model/sign for both male and female really interesting. The Orthodox theologian Evdokimov makes very similar arguments, and I think these arguments need more discussion and development for sure. The delicacy of this is made manifest by the two dangerous extremes: one, that Christ as a human being becomes ‘non-gender’ or ‘trans-gender’, and on the other end, that focusing on Christ’s male-ness can come to mean for us that the female is an imperfect human being (following again in the footsteps of Aristotle’s thought). There’s a balance somewhere and I don’t think I quite see it yet.

    The issue of altar servers: My position (open to discussion, of course) is that the consecration of the Eucharist depends in part upon, as explained by St. Thomas Aquinas, the proper form and matter. These are philosophical element that come from the four causes (material, formal, efficient, final). For instance, the elements of the Eucharist have certain matter (unleavened bread), a certain form (a meaning, a recognizable identity, ritual surrounding, perhaps), efficient cause (revealed ritual, the actions of the priest, the power of God), final cause (the telos, or end, of unity in love with God and humans and humans with each other through unity with God). The causes are part of the identity, or character, or means through which this happens. They are revealed by God (Last Supper) and continually confirmed and reiterated through Tradition.

    As we couldn’t thus have the Eucharist through a change in ritual (consecrative actions/words) we couldn’t have it except through an “alter Christus” imitating Christ who came to us in the form of a human male. The altar servers are, in the sense of drama again, ‘potential alter Christus’ and so the ‘sign’ of young women doesn’t make ritualistic or dramatic sense. It is a mis-message and at the highest levels.

    My contention is that women and girls are really asking for a confirmation of their own role: what is it? If women understood their profound role and it was held up as something essential and respected, they would want to do that, not what is formally a male role. In other words, I’d rather play Portia than Bassanio– I want to play that wonderful, essential, beautiful feminine role, because I am made for that, in a sense. I’m sure men feel somewhat the same.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
      August 29, 2015 8:56 pm

      You write:

      ” The altar servers are, in the sense of drama again, ‘potential alter Christus’ and so the ‘sign’ of young women doesn’t make ritualistic or dramatic sense. It is a mis-message and at the highest levels. ”

      Why, in the sense of drama, are they “potential alter Christus’? Dramatically (in the sense of theater), they can be all manner of minor characters in opposition to or in support of the priest. Looking to the NT, they could be read as Martha, who stepped apart from the others (those listening to the words of Christ, i.e., the congregation) in order to serve Christ. In which case the NT would call for this to be a female role. So I think you cannot simply assert this as self-evident but must justify this claim.

      • Tami Wrye Kozinski permalink
        September 2, 2015 9:07 pm

        Good point, David, about Martha and the support idea. When I speak self-evidently, I am referring to the evident Tradition that altar servers are in a kind of training for the priesthood, so they are ‘potential priests.’ That’s where I get that. Is this open to legitimate change in confessions that are dependent in part on Tradition for their identity (as opposed to many Christian denominations)? I don’t honestly know the answer.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
          September 4, 2015 7:48 pm

          “the evident Tradition that altar servers are in a kind of training for the priesthood”

          I am not sure I believe that this is Tradition (with a capital T) or if it is even historically accurate over the long and convoluted history of liturgy in the European church. But I will confess that I do not know enough to make an argument against either.

          But I will note that the effective suppression of the minor orders, which for at least some periods in history functioned as visible signposts on the path to ordination to the priesthood, suggests that the Church herself no longer sees altar servers in this way, and suggests that we seek another image for our understanding of altar servers. I will point again to my image of Martha—one which St. Francis of Assisi used to prescribe the rule for friars living and working in hermitages—as a feminine image that is fitting for both young men and women seeking a place in the Church.

  4. Ronald King permalink
    August 29, 2015 4:45 pm

    Excellent post! Briefly, I believe that there should be two priests celebrating mass, one male and one female, in order to express the real mystery of the faith.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
      August 29, 2015 8:49 pm

      Okay, definitely not traditional!

      • Ronald King permalink
        August 29, 2015 9:04 pm

        But it is a traditional marriage.

        • August 31, 2015 1:31 pm

          But if you’re going to use nuptial imagery, the Bridegroom is Christ, who is married to the Church. The priest represents the congregation before God (as he also mediates God to the congregation). Since the Church is feminine with respect to Christ, each of us, as a member of the Church–even men–is feminine with respect to God, theologically speaking. The priest, then, in a sense, plays a feminine role in representing all of us–all of whom are feminine, in the specified sense–before his/our Spouse, God. Therefore, having another priest would be superfluous and would mess up the imagery.

        • Ronald King permalink
          September 3, 2015 9:45 am

          Turmarion, I tried to understand what you wrote above but the theology just seems very contrived to me. But I will attempt to respond with something that may appear rational. If the Church is feminine with respect to Christ and each of us is a member of the Church and the Body of Christ then why is it that only the male represents the Church as the priest. Men cannot represent the feminine because biologically speaking they do not pass the DNA of mitochondria from one generation to the next. It is only passed from mothers to daughters and it is the mitochondria which nourishes and keeps alive each cell in our bodies. The Body of Christ is dependent upon the life-giving nourishment of the feminine to sustain itself.
          As it now is she is not represented in the theology and the imagery of the Eucharist. The Bride/Church is lifeless without the feminine imagery at the altar. There is much more to say but my time is limited. I hope this makes some sense.

  5. Jack Hartjes permalink
    August 29, 2015 10:23 pm

    A point I missed in the main article, if it was there. If the feminine is passive, then the congregation definitely is not feminine–since Vatican II anyway. We are all active participants. The Liturgy is our work, the work of the people. This is true even in the Liturgy of the word, especially the Gospel, where we stand, a position of readiness for action, ready to BE Gospel people.

    • Tami Wrye Kozinski permalink
      September 2, 2015 9:08 pm

      Jack, I purposely don’t use the word ‘passive’ for the feminine, because it connotes a lack of agency. I use ‘active receptivity’ so in that sense the congregation, indeed the whole Church, can be thought of as feminine.

  6. Ronald King permalink
    August 30, 2015 1:18 pm

    Mary brings Christ into the world with support from her husband who humbled himself and assumed the role of a protector. That’s very clear. The Eucharist begins with the mystery of the supernatural union of spirit and flesh. It is not a passive receptivity but a conscious decision. Mary was given a choice and she agreed. The church does not give women a choice, they, males assign the limits of a female’s involvement. There is no mystery in that case.

    • Tami Wrye Kozinski permalink
      September 2, 2015 9:09 pm

      Ronald, that is a really, really fascinating point. I have to think on that one!

  7. September 2, 2015 9:18 am

    ‘Bravo!’ Renee. Thank you for such a well thought out presentation and welcome to VN.

    “If teaching is, semiotically, a masculine activity only properly done by a male person, why do we have women Doctors of the Church? Why then are women the majority of catechists?”

    I think Thomas Aquinas would be the first to recognize the fallacy of the male ‘seeding model’ in human procreation had he been better aware of human biology. Your exposition is refreshing because it accurately diagnoses the ‘cataracts’ that distort our vision (a misunderstood and misapplied seeding principle) and offers hope for better understanding based upon a clearer vision.

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