The Uninterrupted Tradition of the Church

a review of "Inter Insigniores" by Hans Urs von Balthasar,
published in L'Osservatore Romano (February 24, 1977):6-7

[The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), was one of the Roman Catholic Church's most influential 20th Century thinkers.]


1. The Declaration Touched on All the Decisive Dimensions of the Problem

The declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood has prudently touched on all the decisive dimensions of the problem. It was not afraid to penetrate into the depths of the mystery, from which such liberating and convincing light shines forth for the true believer. Certainly, the actual proof which justifies the Church's way of acting is given in sections 2-4 on the normative way of action of Christ, then of the apostles and then of the tradition of the Church. The constancy of this tradition is presented finally not as a "kind of archaism, but as faithfulness" to her own founder. It is precisely here that it derives its "normative character."

Only after this primary historical proof does the declaration go on in section 5 to a thorough consideration of "appropriateness" (convenientia), according to the "analogy of faith," as St. Paul called it. But we must not let ourselves be led astray here by words: where it is a question of mysteries of the faith, convenientia means something quite different from a mere approximative rightness, or a merely human "suitableness" that might be simply fortuitous and relative. It means rather what convenientia, originally meant: coming together, inner harmony, such as an organism achieves in the balance of its various organs.

The declaration insists expressly on the impossibility of transforming the mysteries of faith into truths considered on the purely rational plane. Among these mysteries belong also the sacraments, and therefore the institution of the ordained ministry in the Church, These mysteries have their own hermeneutics and interpretation, which are accessible and comprehensible only for those who, believing, let themselves be led by the mystery of Christ and the multiple aspects which belong to it in an organic way, into the depths of their inner harmony and plausibility. St. Anselm did not hesitate to attribute a "necessity" to this internal harmony in God, in spite of all the freedom of divine disposition. For even if we must always concede to the sovereignty of God the possibility of acting differently from the way he deigned to act, we have not in any way the freedom to relativize his logic: He is absolute reason, the logos itself. Neither have we the freedom to picture in our imagination other ways which he could have taken.


II. Regarding Tradition . . . Everything Depends on Whether the Aspect in Question Belongs to the Essence of the Structures of the Church

It was necessary to make this premise before being able to tackle in a meaningful way the problem that concerns us. For it is clear a -priori that the mere fact of a hitherto uninterrupted custom of the Church cannot represent a sufficient proof that this custom could not be changed because of important insights of changed cultural circumstances. If any conclusion is to be drawn from uninterrupted tradition, everything depends on whether the aspect in question belongs to the essence of the structure of the Church, as it was instituted by Christ, or not. There are also other aspects, for which important motives or appropriateness can be indicated, but which can be described only as highly suitable— and not "necessities" in St. Anselm's sense. As an example one could mention priestly celibacy. Although it is possible to point to a long and persistent tradition in such cases, they are not such a central part of the substance of the mystery of the Church. This can be seen from the Pastoral Epistles, in which mention is made of married pastors of local churches. There is also mention of "Peter's mother-in-law." In the Gospel, in fact, Jesus and Paul, in their recommendation of celibacy, merely advise it.

Therefore, argumentation on the basis of the uninterrupted tradition of the Church must necessarily be able to find support in a moment that is contained in the very essence of the structure of the Church and of its sacramentality; a moment preserved from any intervention by the Church to bring about changes (since the latter cannot change at will, but must accept herself, as she was born), and which, in its complete and substantial logic, becomes understandable for faith only if it is considered in the "analogy of faith," in the context of the mystery of the faith as a whole. Now, the essential harmony between the order of creation and the order of redemption belongs to this connection. The redemptive mystery "Christ-Church" is the superabundant fulfillment of the mystery of creation between man and woman, as Paul affirms very forcefully, so that the fundamental mystery of creation is called "great" precisely in view of its fulfillment in the mystery of redemption. The natural sexual difference is charged, as difference, with a supernatural emphasis, of which it is not itself aware, so that outside of Christian revelation it is possible to arrive at various deformations of this difference such as, for example, a one-sided matriar-chate or patriarchate, an underestimation of women, or, finally, such a leveling of the sexes as to destroy all the values of sexuality. It is only from the indestructible difference between Christ and the Church (prepared, but not yet incarnate in the difference between Yahweh and Israel) that there is reflected the decisive light about the real reciprocity between man and woman.


III. The Concept of Apostolic Succession Is Decisive in the Catholic and in the Oriental Churches

The conferring of the priestly ministry only on men, unchanged in a history of two thousand years, shows clearly enough, as the "declaration" sets forth, that the Church considers it as part of the substance given to her from her very foundation. Particularly important, here, is the testimony of the Oriental Church, which never deviated from the original tradition, although "her ecclesiastical organization admits a great difference in many other problems." And the deviations in the Churches born from the Reformation are quite clearly connected with a changed, weakened relationship between the people of the Church and the apostolic office. This relationship was largely conceived as detached from the concrete succession from the apostles—and therefore also from the structure of the apostolic Church—and constructed directly on the common priesthood of all the faithful.

In the Catholic Church, on the contrary, as in the Orthodox one, the concept of apostolic succession is decisive. The primitive Church was clearly a structured community, because of the ministry set up by Christ for the believing community—with full powers over the authentic proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments. And this was to remain so throughout the centuries by means of full powers always transmitted concretely and personally. Continuity with the origin consists, from the Catholic and Orthodox point of view, not only in the faith, but also in the organ responsible for Orthodox faith (and the presence of Christ in the sacraments belongs to this faith): the episcopal office. Even before the existence of a concrete community, Christ at least prepared this office through the calling of the Twelve and the attribution of full powers to them (Mk 3:14f). These "full powers" were already christological: the authorization to proclaim Christ's doctrine in his name and to reject the spirit of the anti-Christ with his power, in the Holy Spirit. This means that here, apparently close to the beginning of his public activity, Jesus granted a participation in his precise messianic function. And this function of the Messiah was, already in accordance with the expectation of the Old Testament, that of representing God and his definitive work of salvation to his people. Hence the apostolic office will always be primarily an office (and, consequently, a responsibility) of representing God, from now on concretely in Jesus Christ.

But representation is a strangely ambiguous phenomenon. It says at the same time something positive: the representative had received from the one he represents full powers to make something of his superiority or dignity present, without being able to claim for himself—and here we have the negative element—this superiority or dignity. This duality makes the concept of representation, and therefore also of the apostolic office, so vulnerable and also so liable to misuse.

In the natural order of the sexes, the representation of God and of his "glory" (doxa) is to be found, according to Paul, in the creation of man (1 Cor 11:7). But it is brought home to him how much man is only reflection and not the glory itself: "for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God" (v. 12). In the Christian supernatural order, which has its foundation in the natural order, the duality is even more marked; the apostle, as "God's fellow worker," just because he represents Christ, is put "last of all." He is the servant of everyone, who considers it normal that "we are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute" (1 Cor 4:9f).

Now, throughout Catholic tradition and its concept of concrete succession, there passes, at least by underground channels, the awareness of this insuppressible dualism of priestly representation. Even if often, owing to sinful forgetfulness, one-sided emphasis was laid, in a presumptuous clericalism, on the positive aspect of representation—to the extent of the excessive exaltation of the priest as an "alter Christi," which does not exist—yet it has always been recalled too, especially by the saints but also by the ecclesiastical authority, that the apostolic office is only a service for the Church and in the Church, and the service is all the purer, the more specific it is. Namely service of the transmission of God's gifts, which the priest in no way possesses by himself or even only essentially in himself, and which he transmits through his office all the better, to the extent to which he becomes completely a pure instrument of transmission.


IV. Woman Does Not Represent, but Is, While Man has to Represent and Therefore Is More and Less Than What He Is ...

All this, however, becomes really clear only when one looks at the subject to which the male apostolic service has to dedicate itself: the Church of the faithful of Christ, which—not to mention the Old Testament image of Israel as the bride of Yahweh—is always presented as feminine in the New Testament. According to the major ecclesial reflection, which is well founded on New Testament declarations, this femininity of the Church belongs just as deeply to tradition as the attribution of the apostolic office to man. For patristic theology, as well for the scholastics of the Middle Ages and also of the baroque period, the Church is the mother of the faithful and at the same time the bride of Christ. She stands as the sublime woman in Church portals, as opposed to the crumbling synagogue. In innumerable miniatures, she is presented as the only woman standing under the cross, she holds up the sacred chalice to collect Christ's blood; she is, particularly in Oriental theology, the definitive incarnation of divine Wisdom, who receives and bears in her womb all the seeds of the Logos, dispersed in creation and throughout the history of salvation.

I cannot help thinking here of two books by Louis Bouyer: the first one, Le Trône de la Sagesse, is older (1957); the second one, Mystère et ministère de la femme (Aubier, 1976) is new and concerns our subject expressly. Its main purpose is to shed light, even more than on the "femininity" of the Church, on the sexual-personal role of woman. While man, as a sexual being, only represents what he is not and transmits what he does not actually possess, and so is, as described, at the same time more and less than himself, woman rests on herself, she is fully what she is, that is, the whole reality of a created being that faces God as a partner, receives his seed and spirit, preserves them, brings them to maturity, and educates them. One can question this thesis of Bouyer in many ways, and we will do so elsewhere. But in the first place its central point is certainly to be accepted, all the more so in that it represents the core of an ecclesiastical tradition, which is free here of all peripheric scoriae and obscurities due to hellenistic misogyny (which is partly re-echoed in the fathers of the Church and in the Middle Ages).

Unfortunately, this liberation and renewal of a great tradition, parallel to that of the sacred ministry, falls in an age in which the whole fruitfulness of the differentiation of the sexes in their respective roles is more and more forgotten and intentionally suffocated. And this in favor of a "masculinization" of a whole civilization, marked by a male technical rationality, a masculinization which is sought under the pretextof equality of rights and parity of the sexes. Inasmuch as the sexual sphere is opened to all technical manipulations, the personal height and depth of the difference of the sexes loses its significance. All "services" are put on the same plane and are therefore interchangeable. Even if man cannot conceive and give birth, why cannot woman carry out in the Church each of these apparently neuter "services" which are entrusted to man?

It is above all this overestimation of the masculine, which objectivizes the spirit and imprisons sexuality in a low physiological sphere, which today opposes understanding of the attitude of the Church, when she remains faithful to her tradition. Here, too, the principle holds good that "gratia supponit naturam." Restored nature would bring to light— within the parity of nature and parity of value of the sexes—above all the fundamental difference, according to which woman does not represent, but is, while man has to represent and, therefore, is more and less than what he is. Insofar as he is more, he is woman's "head" and on the Christian plane intermediary of divine goods; but insofar as he is less, he depends upon woman as a haven of refuge and exemplary fulfillment.

It is not possible here, for lack of space, to show in detail this difference in equality of nature; in particular the question would have to be discussed of the masculinity of Christ, in his eucharist, in which he, on a plane above the sexes, gives himself to the Church entirely as the dedicated seed of God—and the participation, difficult to formulate, of the apostolic office in this male fertility, which is above sex. Only if this aspect were fully brought to light, would man's latent inferiority to woman be overcome in some way. But it must suffice to have mentioned this concept.


V. The Virgin Mary Is the Privileged Place Where God Can and Wishes to be Received in the World

It should give woman a feeling of exaltation to know that she— particularly in the virgin-mother Mary—is the privileged place where God can and wishes to be received in the world. Between the first incarnation of the "Word of God in Mary and its ever new arrival in the receiving Church, there exists an inner continuity. This and only this is the decisive Christian event, and insofar as men are in the Church, they must participate—whether they have an office or not—in this comprehensive femininity of the Marian Church. In Mary, the Church, the perfect Church, is already a reality, long before there is an apostolic office. The latter remains secondary and instrumental in its representation and, just because of the deficiency of those who hold office (Peter!), is so made that the grace transmitted remains unharmed by this deficiency. He who has an office must endeavor, as far as he can, to remove this deficiency, but not by approaching Christ as head of the Church, but by learning to express and live better the fiat that Mary addressed to God one and triune.

As can be seen from all this, the tradition of the Church is far more deeply rooted than might be thought at first sight. It goes down into unfathomable depths, but what we can grasp of it and express in shimmering words shows us that it is within its rights and cannot be challenged by changes in times and opinions (also as regards the role of the sexes).