The Bridegroom of the Church and Other Malicious and Misleading Metaphors

In the flurry of media attention surrounding the death of one pope and the election of another, a Catholic theologian on “Meet the Press” was asked to explain the theological thinking barring the ordination of women in the Catholic church. He said that the ordination of women was not merely an issue of church doctrine — which, if it were, could be changed — the ordination of women was against the will of God, and therefore not open to discussion.

The basis for this stunning declaration is a traditional metaphor that describes Christ as the bridegroom of the church and the church as the bride of Christ. (Nuns are also brides of Christ. Does this mean that Christ is a polygamist? Priests are also part of the church, does this mean that priests are wedded to themselves?) The reasoning is that
(a) Christ is the bridegroom of the church
(b) the priest is Christ’s representative on earth
(c) the priest is the bridegroom of the church
(d) bridegrooms are by definition male

Ergo, women by definition cannot be priests.

I guess following this line of reasoning to its most ridiculous conclusion, the Church fears that the ordination of women would mean that the Church countenanced gay marriage.

Note: I myself do not understand why any self-respecting woman would want to continue membership in any institution as sexist as the Christian, Jewish or Islamic faith. However ….

This exchange reminded me of another area of endeavor — science — where a metaphor has had, and continues to have, unfortunate consequences for women. About 350 years ago, Francis Bacon in writing of the relationship between the scientist and nature describes nature as female and the scientist as the suitor who seeks to decipher her mysteries, impose order on her chaos, and enslave her to the will of man. As a result of this metaphorical thinking, women have had almost as hard a time entering science as entering the priesthood. And, not surprisingly, science has often been likened to a priesthood. (For a discussion of Bacon’s use of sexual metaphor relative to science and nature, see Anne Eisenberg, “Women and the Discourse of Science” or Evelyn Fox Keller, “Reflections on Gender and Science”).

A metaphor is a powerful communications shortcut which employs a verbal image to dive deep into the unconscious of the reader/hearer and activate all the cultural emotions and thoughts associated with that image. A metaphor is a way of describing an unknown thing in terms of a known thing, factoring in all the layers of cultural information contained in the known thing. For example, if a woman says of her husband, “He is my rock,” she is assuming that her hearer knows what a rock is — but more importantly — what a rock represents in our culture. In saying that her husband is her rock, she is assuming that her audience will not leap to the conclusion that her husband is made of granite, but that to her he is strong, stable, dependable, etc. She also understands that using the term rock to describe a male will have positive connotations, whereas using the term rock in reference to a woman would be questionable. In using the metaphor, she has communicated some rather complicated emotional information powerfully and directly.

So, when the Catholic Church refers to Christ as the bridegroom of the church and the priest as his standin, the church is taking something mysterious — the relationship of Christ to the church and describing it in terms of the everyday — the relationship between two newlyweds. In doing so, it is calling up all the cultural associations we have with bride, bridegroom, and the state of newly wedded bliss. From this metaphor, we can draw on all the rich cultural associations we have with bride, bridegroom, and newlyweds.

The most obvious association is that of sexual intercourse taking place within the context of a continuous honeymoon, the ever-virginal bride being passionately penetrated by the loving bridegroom — fertilized by, inseminated with, the Holy Spirit. This metaphor draws on a centuries-old belief (which was not dispelled until about 150 years ago with the discovery of the ovum) that the woman brought nothing to this transaction but an empty womb and passive obedience, that sexual intercourse is a one-way transfer of value going from the male to the female. The bride/church can offer nothing but passive, empty receptivity and a womb within which the Holy Spirit can germinate and grow, while the groom offers the seed of life. In this seemingly innocent metaphor, we have a collective recognition of sacred maleness juxtaposed with profane and worthless femaleness, intrinsic male value vs. utilitarian female value.

To accept this metaphor is to accept that maleness, i.e., phallic masculinity, is the sole source of the holy spirit � that in reality, not just metaphorically, it is the potency carried in the priest�s phallus which penetrates and fertilizes the church, infuses and invests the church with the holy spirit � that the holy spirit in fact resides in the potency and phallic nature of the male. Just as the spirit of God brought the world into being and filled the womb of Mary, so the priest infuses the church with the spirit of God. This is the reasoning of Christianity and it has done enormous damage to women down through the centuries.

Bacon�s use of the metaphor of sexual intercourse � with the scientist as the male partner and nature as the female partner also relies on cultural associations with male and female � the male as mind, the female as matter, the male as order, the female as chaos, the male as master , the female as slave, the male, who, through his penetrating, inseminating intellect which enables man to use nature for his own ends, as the giver of value, the female as an otherwise valueless entity. This thinking has enormously negative implications for both woman and nature � offering a picture of woman as empty headed and unfocussed and worthy only to serve male ends and providing a concept of nature which is only understood as having value when it is exploited for the use of humanity. In the worldview popularized by this metaphor, natural resources have no value unless put to man�s use. Both woman and nature are taken as a given � taken for granted.

Today, however, we know that the bases for these metaphors are false. We know that women bring much more to the project of life than an ability to incubate young; the ovum has as much �if not more � reproductive value as the sperm. Add to that woman�s dedication to bringing up the new life and we might tilt the value scale in her direction. So, the metaphor of Christ/the priest as the source of life just doesn�t jibe with what we know about human reproductive biology and the metaphor no longer works. The male member is not the sole locus of life-giving power � and so to continue to use this metaphor as a reason for barring women from the priesthood is in a way lying about the true nature of men and women and human reproductive biology.

We also know that the female mind is in no way inferior to the male mind � neither empty nor chaotic (although chaos theory gives a new and positive understanding of the term chaos, it was not considered a compliment when Bacon was writing.). Today, now that women have won the rights to be educated, to vote, and to get direct access to resources by entering the world of �men�s� work � including science — and, most importantly, now that women have gained control over their reproductive lives, giving them the time and energy to exercise these rights and freedoms, Bacon�s metaphor no longer has the resonance it once had. But the damage still lingers. Just think of Harvard President Lawrence Summers� comments which seemed to cast doubt on women�s ability to succeed in scientific careers, in spite of the spectacular contributions made by many women scientists.

We are also only too painfully aware that Bacon�s metaphor contains another troubling cultural delusion � that humanity, specifically educated, scientific male humanity, somehow occupies a position outside of nature, giving it the ability to control and dominate nature the way many men have tried to control and dominate women. This delusion, that humanity exists outside of nature and has the right, if not the mandate, to control and manipulate nature to its own ends, has given rise to awesomely destructive military, industrial, and agricultural technologies directed against the very earth which is our ground of being, resulting in a contamination, pollution, and degradation so deadly that it will very likely be the end of us.

Those of us who are conscious of the fact that we exist in nature � even on airplanes, even on the top floors of skyscrapers, even at the top or our professions � not somehow above nature, are offended by these lying metaphors that promote a worldview that is fundamentally self-destructive. Those of us who are conscious of the inestimable value of women�s work and the work of women are offended by metaphors which rely on previous understandings of the reproductive biology which are injurious to women and which all too often still have the effect of devaluing the work of women, regardless of the sphere.

Metaphors arise from the collective unconscious and derive their power from a collectively understood perception of reality. This is an exciting time we live in. We are in the process of creating a new consciousness, a new perception of reality. In this new reality, maleness is no longer understood as the deepest levels of the psyche as the source of life and therefore sacred, but one half of an equation, and one way of being among many. Femaleness is regaining its lost value as an equal partner in the life project and as an independently valuable entity. We are also in the process of creating a new consciousness in which humanity no longer sees itself as separate from and superior to the rest of nature, but as an integral part of nature. A new consciousness calls for new metaphors, more in line with our new understanding of reality and a conscious rejection of the old metaphors that keep the old reality alive. We need to identify the old metaphors and expunge them from our daily discourse, but preserve them as interesting linguistic artifacts — keys to the consciousness of a pre-existing age.

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