TOB and Ordination II

Back in September 2015, I was one of three Canadian women presenting at the International Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia on the question:
Theology of the Body – Friend or Foe of the Ordination Question?
This is Part II of four — Part I can be found here.

Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. This is clearly the message JP II transmits through his Theology of the Body. While completely unintentional on the part Pope John Paul II, it is our conviction that in this firm claim by the Holy Father lay the beginning of a reversal of church teaching on the ordination of women.

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. It is fascinating to think that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time those who are pregnant grow another human being. The new life generated by sexual intercourse is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.  When she said yes, Mary became first in offering the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, Mary, and every woman with her, can grasp a bit of the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life —a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own son Jesus. I wonder if we have really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological “transubstantiation” called pregnancy, whether we have personally experienced it or not.

Herein may lay a promise and potential of powerful witness through the ordination of a woman because of her gender. A woman priest, simply by being female, subverts the outdated and prejudicial associations of male-only priesthood. Women carry powerful symbolic associations with bodiliness and earthliness which are crying out to be reclaimed for the sake of the fullness of God and now also for the sake of the healing of “Our Common Home: the Earth.

After opening his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si with quotes from The Canticle of St. Francis, Pope Francis then immediately states:  This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf.Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

It is a chilling exercise to substitute the word “women” wherever Pope Francis refers to the earth. Chilling indeed to apply his words to the many and varied ways women and female ways of knowing and living have been “used and abused of the goods with which God has endowed us.”

A priesthood of different genders can affirm sexual difference (in positive and negative ways): women and men are equal but not the same, much in the same way as the TOB claims. Each brings different qualities and values attributed to God, embodied and symbolized in both male and female. There are several strengths in a priesthood of both women and men:

* An increased capacity to bring to Christian life and worship all the gendered ways  of being and symbolic meanings of the divine as reflected in both male and female;

* A restoring of the fullness of the principle of sacramentality which has to include male and female embodiment;

* A fuller expression of the meaning of the Incarnation, i.e. the Word becoming flesh in Christ Jesus.

* A fuller manifestation of the very Theology of the Body as articulated by St. John Paul II, in the fact that a priesthood of both sexes is a more honest reflection of the TOB claim that both women and men are first and foremost a human body in their fullest and most fundamental sense which is then subsequently expressed in male and female.

From cover to cover, the Theology of the Body is focused on human beings, male and female, as images of God that fully share one and the same human nature as “body-persons.” John Paul’s entire treatise is devoted to showing that Trinitarian communion becomes more clearly visible when man and woman, being of the same flesh, live in communion with each other and become “one flesh:” in marriage by sharing the gift of love and the gift of life; in community by holding all things in common and live in mutual love and mercy; in celibacy by giving one’s best self spiritually “for the sake of the kingdom.”

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food and drink, ordinary events and ordinary situations into  the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments. Despite our glaring flaws and shortcomings, both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

To be continued …

Prairie Encounters

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TOB and Ordination I

Back in September 2015, I was one of three Canadian women presenting at the International Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia on the question:
Theology of the Body – Friend or Foe of the Ordination Question?

Ever since I explored Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB), I have become convinced that this profound theological reflection provides the most solid argument in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood. In fact, it strikes me as quite peculiar that most supporters of TOB seem to oppose the priestly ordination of women and most supporters of priestly ordination of women seem to have written off TOB as having anything positive to contribute to this discussion.

I beg to differ quite seriously with both positions. I am hereby sharing the text of this presentation in four installments, beginning with Part I of four:

You, O Lord Jesus Christ, may dwell in me
as the new creation bestowed in baptism.
You are the pattern for my life, my fullness
– clothing me “in Christ.”
I may act in your name, O Jesus,
in my loving, comforting, peacemaking.
I may care in your name, I may teach in your name.
I may guide and console in your holy name.
I may enter the Eucharistic mystery as co-creator,
transforming divine spirit
into a new body and blood in my womb
and give birth to God’s beloved children.
I may preach anywhere but in sacred liturgy.
I may “be you” everywhere but at the altar.
I may act “in persona Christi” with the poor and hungry,
with the sick and the lonely,
the troubled and the stranger
—everywhere and always
except in the source and summit
of our faith, the Eucharist …

One of the most challenging things for the human mind is to suspend knowing what we know in order to learn and see something new. This may be the case today as we try to examine in a most cursory manner Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) in connection with the question of priestly ordination for women in the Roman Catholic Church. Our guess is that if you do know something about TOB, it likely comes from Christopher West’s interpretation of the TOB. Popular and widely endorsed by Catholic Bishops everywhere, West has focused his entire TOB interpretation on sexuality and marriage. But whether we are married or single, we are our bodies long before, and even without, expressing our sexuality in an intimate sanctioned genital relationship.

Either the Theology of the Body has something to offer for EVERY body at any age and in any of life’s seasons, or it is an inadequate theology. So let’s take a brief “hermeneutical” trip, and see whether there is anything in JP II’s thinking that can serve as a new foothold in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood.

We’re using TOB as a springboard for further reflection on the ordination question for women.  Keep in mind, however, that Pope John Paul II never intended to provide direct arguments favouring the ordination of women; after all, he’s the one that closed the door on even discussing the matter. But that should not stop us from looking at the TOB and see if it can nevertheless offer a theological and anthropological foothold for ordaining women. If it does, it would clearly be a case of unintended consequences, exactly the type of thing the Holy Spirit loves to use:).

Our bodies are essential to our humanity, to everything we do, from cradle to grave. Indeed, we experience all of life, and all of our relationships, in and through our bodies. The skin is the largest sensory organ, and healthy loving touch is fundamental to healthy development and growth. When we pray, we pay attention to our posture. When we engage in conversation, our bodies speak volumes about our intent, motivation and purpose. The most exhilarating moments of giving ourselves to others are visceral experiences, deeply involving our bodily movements, sensations and expressions, and at times deeply involving spiritual dimensions.

God fashioned the human body as the foundation of our identity. A human body was necessary and enough for Jesus of Nazareth. This very Jesus who is the animating energy of our faith and the reason for our church, whose bodily gift of self in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, took on human flesh in the womb of a woman’s  . . . body. Yet, throughout most of Christian history, we have ignored the radical implications of this truth when it comes to the Incarnation of God in Christ and our bodily comfort level.

Here is the TOB quote most relevant to our exploration: Although in its normal constitution, the human body carries within itself the signs of sex and is by its nature male or female, the fact that man is a body belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female… which are, as it were, two different incarnations, that is, two ways in which the same human being, created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), is a body. (TOB, par. 8.1)

When the first person in Genesis exclaims, This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, Pope John Paul suggests there is a unity deeper than gendered difference. The presence of “the other” gives rise to a greater self-consciousness and the meaning of personhood, visibly expressed in the body. Creation in the image of God, therefore, is not limited to the individual person but is also an image of the Trinity as a communion of persons. Formatively, this means that each one of us, female and male, is an image of and a participant in the very life of God. At an anthropological level, original unity is an embodied recognition and reception of another person as a gift offered in creation by God to co-create.

The sovereign God took on human flesh and redeemed us through the human flesh of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the capacity for the human body to make visible the invisible God. In Christ Jesus the physical and the spiritual were reunited as one. No more separation between the flesh and the spirit, between the sacred and the profane, between the human and the divine.

However, despite this amazing good news, Christian history has had an ironically opposite track record. At varying times we have degraded the body, chastised the body, dismissed the body, even blamed it as the source of all evil, in particular the female body. In light of the Incarnation, and despite St. Paul’s summons, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (I Cor 3:16 & 6:19), such a track record should be considered deeply heretical. Given this dubious legacy, it is refreshing to re-read Katrina Zeno’s presentation at a TOB conference in Rome a few years back in which she said:

As human persons we do indeed have a very specific nature, an embodied rational nature, which perhaps could even be called a sacramental nature. At all times and in all places our embodied human nature is created by God to point to something beyond just the material. We are not relative only to ourselves and to our acquired goods and pleasures. On the contrary, “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” to cite one of the most frequently quoted passages from the theology of the body (Audience 19, section 4). Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds (Zenit, Nov. 14, 2011).

To be continued …

Prairie Encounters

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Moving to Higher Ground

As 2016 draws to a close, revelers around the world are bidding a weary adieu to a year filled with political surprises, prolonged conflicts and deaths of legendary celebrities. So begins one of today’s articles on the CBC website. Yes, from a global perspective, 2016 was the year many would like to forget as soon as possible. It was beyond ghastly — the horrors of conflict and war, the millions of displaced peoples migrating to safety, terrorist atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians, more martyrs (persons dying for their faith) killed than in all previous centuries, unsettling political outcomes in countries of world influence, and a persistent dragging-the-heels attitude in western nations to implement urgent shifts in lifestyle required to preserve a healthy planet for our children’s children. Against this global backdrop I am tempted to run for cover, to insulate my personal life from the cries of persons and creation, from the complexities of our global problems and to live my existence in a safe bubble.

But of course the safe bubble is an illusion. There is no safe bubble; sooner or later discord, pain and suffering burst onto the happy stage of our insulated lives, and we find ourselves joining the world chorus in cries of despair and betrayal, pain and abandonment. Sometimes it’s as close to home as a family dispute over land ownership or the refugee family settling in our little community. Other times it’s as far away as a distant relative suffering an untimely death or an entire island in the Pacific threatened by extinction because of global warming. Our own agony reminds us that there are no exceptions and no favourites in the grand scheme of things, nor in God’s economy, and that pain and suffering come to us all in varying degrees and through various life situations.

So it is not what happens to us that makes the year a blessing or a curse, but rather how we live what happens to us that will carry the day. I was struck by the words of Russ DeanIn world that is shrinking every day, our contact with the “other” will only increase, and learning to see myself in the eyes of sisters and brothers, black and brown, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight and transgender — must be the way of our future. We cannot afford to (…) to stand in arrogant isolation, ever again…

If we wish to contribute to a better world in our own little corner of this beautiful planet, it is imperative that we grow a bigger heart, increase our commitment to healthy dialogue and become living witnesses of reconciliation and stewardship.

Family strife and racism, reconciliation with First Nations and same-sex marriage, understanding Islam and integrating new immigrants, assisted suicide and abortion — all subjects that can spark controversial and polarizing disputes. Most of us have experienced the painful alienation that can result from such conversations. Unresolved divisions and disputes, conflicting worldviews and moral standards risk leaving relationships permanently impaired or ended. Each time that happens our capacity to love unconditionally suffers.

If there was ever a mission for the Christian churches in today’s conflict-ridden world, it is to move difficult conversations to higher Spirit-filled ground. This desire ignited a bright flame in my heart as I witnessed global and personal breakdowns in dialogue and understanding, in mutual respect and appreciation. I refused to sit by idly as differences in perspectives would turn into bitter conflicts. This burning desire gave birth to a daring initiative. I took a deep breath and stared down the fear along with the impulse to hide … Inspired by books such as Crucial Conversations and Living Reconciliation, enhanced and deepened by theological and Biblical reflection, I initiated a series of eight sessions in which participants were challenged to choose listening before judging, sharing before walking away, receiving before dismissing, and loving before condemning. Five brave souls from five different paths of life signed up for what I called a “blind date.” The experience was personal, challenging and most enriching. Together we learnt a bit more to put into practice God’s call to us all to live in renewed relationship, both with God and with one another in all the complexities and diversity of this broken yet beautiful world God has created.

We need to move to higher ground when it comes to engaging difficult conversations, welcoming the stranger and stewarding Mother Earth, our common home; the survival of humanity and the future of the planet depend on this. A second group will begin January 21, 2017. And for the 37th year in a row, we will walk gently on this earth by living below our means, growing a huge garden and eating healthy home-grown food all year round. These two resolutions are my two-cents worth in the coming year towards helping to create a safer and better world in which it can become easier for all people to be good. What New Year’s resolution are you offering this year to the healing of human relationships and to the restoration of our planet? Happy New Year everyone 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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