June 2016By Stephen J. Kovacs
Stephen J. Kovacs, a regular contributor to the NOR, serves on the humanities faculty of Western Governors University.
The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church. By Monica Migliorino Miller. Emmaus Road Publishing. 194 pages. $12.95.
For several decades the Catholic Church has been in a state of crisis over the role of women. The Church has always taught that women have dignity and play an essential part in the life of the Church, but the contemporary challenges of radical feminism necessitate a more developed theology of female authority in order to address this crisis. In an interview in America magazine (Sept. 30, 2013), Pope Francis called for such a new theological exploration of womens ecclesial role, noting that the Church stands to benefit from the feminine genius. The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church is Monica Migliorino Millers response to this call. Miller, a professor of systematic theology at Madonna University in Michigan, convincingly explains how contrary to popular belief women already possess authority in the Church and play a key role in salvation. In the process, making frequent and effective reference to Scripture, the Church Fathers, and magisterial teaching, she reveals what constitutes authentic femininity and exposes the weaknesses in feminist theology.
Miller rightly observes that the present-day crisis over womens authority in the Church centers on the issue of womens ordination to the priesthood, even though this issue has already been formally settled on a doctrinal level. She notes that many Catholic feminists are not willing to accept orthodox theology, and they advocate for women priests as a political move ultimately to demolish the sacramental order. But even more Catholics do genuinely seek an authentic Catholic feminism yet do not understand what constitutes true authority. It is this latter group to whom Miller primarily directs this book. Women do possess authority in the Church, but not in the same manner as ordained priests, who, by virtue of their masculinity, act in persona Christi. Rather, by virtue of their femininity, women are called to exemplify the Church in a unique role that is complementary to the ordained priesthood and without which the sacramental life of the Church and redemption, itself, would not exist.
It is necessary to recognize that authority is not a synonym for power. One does not possess genuine authority by having dictatorial control over a group or by wielding some quantifiable force in a public office. One possesses real authority (from the Latin auctores, to be the author or creator of something) by giving life and bringing that life to fulfillment. This is how God Himself has authority, among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, as well as in regard to His creation. God freely gives life to man and brings it to perfection as an offering of love, which then must be freely received in love to be fruitful. Miller explains that this freedom is crucial to Gods authority because it allows for covenant. Gods authority is thus covenantal, for it is exercised relationally for the sake of communion.
The fullness of this communion is found in the New Covenant between Christ and the Church, where Christ is the Bridegroom and Head, and the Church His Bride and Body. In this union, salvation is mediated by Christ, a true man, to the Church in a masculine way, making sexuality part and parcel of the economy of salvation. Christ has authority toward the Church specifically by giving her life; and the Church, which is properly signified by woman, has authority in turn by giving that life to the world. Together, through this one-flesh union, Christ and the Church give life in a way that is complementary and mutually fulfilling. Both exercise their authority for the sake of their unity and both are bound by its meaning. This marital structure of the New Covenant, far from being a mere metaphor, defines the union and reveals its true nature. The order of redemption is patterned after the order of creation, which, as seen clearly in Genesis 2 in the creation of Adam and Eve, is filled with marital meaning. Miller explains: Man and woman are the original sacraments of the New Covenant; their conjugal love is a prophecy for Christ and the Church. Sexuality and the differences between man and woman as God created them are vital and the means by which both men and women have their unique, complementary authority.
Radical-feminist theologians like Mary Daly, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Reuther recoil at the thought of sexual differences. According to Miller, The most important element of feminist ideology is its horror of distinction. Distinctions, so feminists think, are the source of injustices. Christianity must therefore take the form of an egalitarian democracy in which hierarchical structures do not exist. The truth and validity of divine revelation itself must be judged by womens experience, and the absolute saving power of Christs sacrifice is denied, since it is seen as a challenge to equality. As a result, there are no true sacraments, and the priesthood, which represents Christ in a headship role, is especially threatening. In the mind of feminists, the Church must be completely stripped of the Greco-Roman influences that corrupted Christs alleged designs for an egalitarian community and imposed an oppressive, patriarchal system that has lasted to this day. (Forget the fact that Christ appointed twelve men as His Apostles and founded the Church on their ministry, with Peter as head.) Miller astutely points out that feminist theology ultimately boils down to Gnosticism, and in the end, the feminist horror of distinction must deny the goodness of the created order, robbing women of their rightful, God-given authority.
Christs headship does not dominate or overpower the Church. His role as Head of the Church is one of sacrifice and submission, as He gives the Church her very existence and unity and exercises His authority in her service as her Spouse. As such, priestly authority is bound to male sexuality because of the relation between the headship of Christ and His engendering of the Church. Priests sacramentally represent Christ and so receive the exclusive authority to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice the celebration of the marriage covenant between God and His people which is the very life of the Church. A priest sacramentally stands in the place of the New Adam who embraces the New Eve, Miller writes, and were a woman to try to assume the role of a priest, it would be an attack on the validity of the Eucharist and the whole economy of salvation.
What exactly does female authority entail then? To find out, one should look to the Blessed Mother, the Co-Redemptrix. According to Miller, the New Covenant is created by the union and cooperation between the New Adam and the New Eve: Christ and Mary. As seen in Mary, women have unique authority as the source of life in relation to [Christ] in the completion of the New Covenant. At the Annunciation, Mary, by her free choice, plays a definitive role in mankinds redemption; the Incarnation takes place directly through the authority of Marys obedience, demonstrating her dignity as an actual agent of salvation. At Cana, Jesus initiates His public ministry specifically at Marys urging, which shows that she is not only the mother of Jesus, she is the mother of His mission. The fullness of Marys authority is most evident at the foot of the Cross. There she offers her Son as her own sacrifice and sees that His priesthood, of which she is the source, is fully realized. The sacrifice of Mary and the sacrifice of Christ are thereby offered as one, with Mary representing the Church, the covenantal partner in redemption: the Body and Bride of Christ. Thus, without woman the covenant of redemption would not be fulfilled.
The Churchs life-giving role in cooperation with Christ shows the significance and indispensability of feminine authority. Blasphemous though it may sound, the Church completes Christ as the Body completes the Head, just as woman completes man and gives meaning to his headship. Without the Church, the life Christ offers us is inaccessible. Souls are born in grace as a fruit of the union between God as Father and the Church as Mother, and the baptismal font has traditionally been viewed as the Churchs womb. Like Mary, the Church has a genuine motherhood that is tasked with the ongoing care of the children she bears. The Church nourishes her children throughout their lives with the holy milk she produces the Gospel and the sacraments. She also serves as their primary instructor through her Magisterium, by which she guides, directs, protects, and educates, as well as admonishes. It is not simple sentiment to refer to the Church as mother, Miller says. Rather, motherhood expresses a reality about the Church.
To provide concrete illustration of the rich theology in her book, Miller offers several examples of women of various states in life from Old Testament times to the present who have exercised their authority in extraordinary ways. One example she gives is St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, who personified the maternal authority of the Church. Augustine attributed his religious conversion to Monicas long-suffering witness and intercession, likening her tears for him to the waters of baptism. When Augustine had embraced the Manichean heresy, Monica excommunicated him from her household, unwilling to compromise with sin and false doctrine. Following Augustines baptism, Monica continuously nurtured him spiritually as a living expression of the Church, serving not just as his physical mother but as his spiritual mother and guide. Because of her outstanding exemplification of the Church, it is indeed possible that Monica was a key inspiration for Augustines ecclesiology, as Miller suggests. Some other women Miller highlights are Judith, the source of encouragement and hope for the entire Hebrew nation; SS Perpetua and Felicity, whose martyrdom has stood in Christian tradition as a paradigm of feminine courage through which the faith of the Church has been fostered; and St. Margaret Clitherow, whose extraordinary life and death contributed to the survival of the Catholic Church in England during the second half of the English Reformation.
In an impressive chapter, Miller shows how the Church Fathers, despite common misconceptions and their own Neoplatonism, were great champions of womens authority. St. Jerome taught that women play a decisive role in redemption and that Christ and Mary share the dignity of virginity in an equal fashion. In his famous Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote at length about how Mary is the New Eve and how her fiat brought about salvation for herself and all mankind. The Fathers taught in unison that a woman had the right to consent to marriage, and without this consent the marriage is invalid. St. Ambrose insisted that the dowry system was unjust because it treated women as property. St. Augustine exhorted wives not to tolerate their husbands infidelity. St. John Chrysostom claimed that wives have the authority to act as their husbands moral guide. The equality of men and women was strongly advocated by St. Caesarius of Arles, who noted that Christ equally redeemed both. All the Fathers extolled women who chose to live a life of consecrated virginity and defended such a choice as a personal right upon which no one dare infringe. From these and many other examples, it is clear that womens authority has been recognized and valued from the earliest days of the Church.
Miller explains that although authority should not be confused with holding a formal office, women can properly exercise their authority in important offices in the Church not intrinsically connected to the priesthood. Two examples she gives are of seminary professors and members of a diocesan chancery. On the issue of women cardinals, Miller acknowledges that the cardinalate is not restricted to the ordained, strictly speaking, and she concedes that a woman could theoretically be appointed a cardinal as a rare distinction to honor outstanding service. Nevertheless, she reasons that women cardinals would ultimately be inappropriate, for tradition has closely tied the role of a cardinal to the hierarchy and apostolic office.
A discussion of the issue of women deacons in light of recent debate would have been a worthwhile addition to Millers book. It is true that the early Church did have deaconesses for a short time in a limited role, but the Church has no theology to draw upon to make a case for women deacons today. This, coupled with the Churchs deepened understanding of the threefold unity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders since the Second Vatican Council, makes the prospect of women deacons seem highly improbable. Millers own thoughts on this matter would have been welcome. Additionally, a direct explanation of how single laywomen have authority would have been helpful. It seems wives, mothers, and women religious would find it easy enough to apply the theology in this book to their own day-to-day lives, yet single laywomen may find it more difficult. Even though Miller points out that all women have maternal authority in the pattern of Mary and the Church, in this instance it is harder to see how that is so without detailed clarification, beyond the examples she gives of specific saintly women.
Miller has generously exercised her own female authority in writing The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church. She has beautifully articulated the authentic Catholic feminism so sorely needed in our day, furthering the Churchs liberating teaching and providing a powerful antidote to the poison of radical feminism.
DOSSIER: Fanatical Feminism