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The maternal priesthood

There are two things that reliably make me cry: Mary and babies.

I am not particularly prone to weeping. And I say that as a grown man who has no illusions about his manly fortitude (I have a history of fainting spells, after all).

Every time I write a sermon for a Marian feast day I find myself quietly weeping in my office as I stare at the computer screen or biblical text. I’m tearing up a little bit right now just thinking about it, and it’s hard to say why. They’re not tears of sorrow, nor are they exactly tears of joy. They’re just the physical response to a spiritual movement that cannot be contained.

I do not have a particularly deep Marian piety. I say the Rosary only on occasion. I say the Angelus most days and a Hail Mary every evening at my son’s bedtime, but Mary doesn’t really take a prominent, active role in my daily life.

If I could put my finger on it, though, it’s probably this: when I first met Mary by accident some ten years ago, it was like meeting Jesus again for the first time. What before had seemed a distant, rational, propositional reality of Christian life took on new character in the incarnational emphasis of Marian piety. And so I think it was from Mary and her sorrows and joys that I learned that Christianity involves an affective as well as an intellectual life. Looking at her now somehow brings it all together and makes the tears flow: joy, sorrow, every feeling in the book — it’s all part of the redeeming work of God that far exceeds words.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that babies also make me cry. Rather, not babies in general, but the experience of birth. When both of my children were born, my immediate reaction to the sight of them was tears. There my wife is, having manfully brought forth life from her body, and her husband is standing there weeping like a little girl.

Like with crying over Mary, I have twice been bowled over by this reaction. Of course, there is something understandable about it. I’m relieved that my wife has finally made it through safely; I’m grateful that the child has made it through safely; I’m excited that the nine months of waiting have finally come to fruition; I’m elated to meet and get to know this wonderful new person made in the image of God.

But there’s more to it, I think. What’s overwhelming isn’t the variety of emotions — well, it isn’t just that — but the sheer wonder of seeing nature do its work, the sheer wonder of nature’s own grace. Mary conceived the Savior “to the wonder of nature” (natura mirante) according to the Alma redemptoris mater, though I consider nature’s wonder there typical: are not all conceptions and all births wonderful? Mary’s own nature was, as William of St. Thierry puts it, “astonished” (stupens) at the miracle of the Incarnation (Speculum fidei, PL 180:381C). Surely, again, Mary’s reaction here is exemplary. We might rightly say that the Incarnation stacks grace upon grace. Its virginal origin only shows that even the most extraordinary things can become more extraordinary, more full, more effulgent when given the chance of humanity’s fiat.

Here and there (or less directly here) one finds references to Mary as priest.[1] Surely there is something worthy about this intuition. We don’t have Jesus, historically speaking, without Mary’s “priestly” mediation in birthing him from her own body. The description gets a little dicey when one begins using “priest” as an unqualified category including the priesthood of the Old Covenant and the priesthood of the New Covenant. It is not controversial to say that Mary was neither of these: she was certainly not a Levitical priest of the Jewish temple; nor was she a sacramental priest as that office developed in the early Church.

Nor will it do to say that Mary simply participated in the “priesthood of all believers.” That is too general. The problem with the “priesthood of all believers” is that it tends to make no one, rather than everyone, a priest, thus obscuring the very real priestly vocation of the whole people of God. All Christians do not literally give birth to the incarnate Son of God. If they “incarnate,” in some spiritual sense, the body of Christ, this incarnation is nonsensical without its prototype in Mary.

A female priest.
A female priest.

It is often supposed that the traditional opposition to female priests rests on some kind of devaluation of the female sex, some lack that prevents their ordainability. If that is so, the tradition may in this case ask of us more than we can or should give. I wonder if the tradition of male priesthood contains other depths: namely, an assumption that it is rather the male sex that is lacking in priestly capacity. Women are already natural priests; they do not all necessarily exercise that priesthood, but it is imprinted on their nature. Men lack this natural priesthood and therefore more fittingly exercise the supernatural priesthood of the incarnate Word.

I recognize the inadequacy of these remarks to address the complex sacramental, social, and political concerns around ordination and sex. I also recognize that I write in the company of female clergy whose witness I admire.

Regardless of what conclusions the Church can and should draw about her hierarchy, it seems to me that we do all lay people — especially lay women — a disservice when we insist that it is only the verbal, propositional, sacramental priesthood that matters. Mary was no priest in this sense, but she was in other ways, more important ways, the prototypical Christian priest, the prototypical human priest, whose vocation is to receive creation and offer it back up to God in praise and thanksgiving.

Not all of us, women and men, can give birth with our bodies. But the natural priesthood of women suggests the depth of creation’s own longing for the wonder of grace. Our role as Christians in the world is not to superimpose grace onto nature but to uncover nature’s grace: to point at these small places of life and death, to weep (maybe) and say with Christ: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The image at the top is a public domain reproduction of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The other photograph was supplied by the author.


1. The idea seems to be especially popular among Catholic proponents of the ordination of women, as some of the links suggest. Others, however, have happened upon the theme. For example, I recall J. Kameron Carter arguing in a theology lecture at Duke Divinity School in 2009 that Mary should be considered a priest because she presented Christ to the world (I do not know what Carter thinks about the sacramental priesthood in general).


  1. I could not quite follow what constitutes ‘priest’ in your usage here. J Carter seems to presuppose a priest is one who presents Christ to the world, but if that is true, then the entire Body of Christ – shares in the royal priesthood. And the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer does not mean that we don’t need priests because we all already are priests, but that we all are called to be priests to one another – to present Christ to one another. This notion that women are naturally priests but men are not simply because we lack a uterus strikes me as quite patronizing to women, and quite a beautifully poetic and innovative effort to maintain one’s opposition to the ordination of women. I predict many here will find it liberating. Perhaps medievalists don’t know that ovum and semen unite to generate life. Naturally. Perhaps the science of our times is not relevant to those who yearn for such a defense. When one looks past the poetry, however, the proposal seems to be that we should accept exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood – and therefore their exclusion from fully empowered participation in the governance of the society of souls – because some who are currently empowered have condescended to acknowledge their natural priesthood by virtue of their capacity to give birth.

    I wonder if you could present this to one of our old profs with a straight face. Perhaps in our old Anglican ethics class, with Stanley and Sam looking at you as you explain your proposal? I’d pay to see that exchange.

    It seems to me we need to decide what we mean by priesthood if we are going to decide who gets excluded from it. “Sacramental” does not help too much as a clarifying adjective because we aren’t clear on what that means, either. Is it not “presenting Christ” or “uncovering nature’s grace”? Surely all the baptized are called to that vocation both collectively and individually. So perhaps you mean something more narrow than that. I perceive most who want to exclude women from the sacramental priesthood denote by it the role of leadership in the performance of the religiones, the ritual means by which we bind ourselves to and align ourselves with and placate the gods. So – no matter how much medieval lipstick we put on it with distinctions like ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ – the claim is ultimately that only males get to lead because males have always scheduled and led the rituals and parades that please the gods.

    That claim seemingly is compelling to the majority of Covenant contributors. I am thankful that I serve in a Church that has enshrined the counterclaim into our canons.

    • I suppose this was “poetry,” as you say, Craig. It wasn’t meant as an argument. And as you well know I do not feel the need to argue about what is dogmatically certain. If, like me, one affirms the Roman magisterium’s ability to speak on the question of ordination, the task is not to argue for the position but to try to understand it from the inside. That is part of what I’m doing, which will I know be entirely unsatisfactory to you. (Stanley or Sam might disagree on what properly constitutes fides in this case, but I think they’d understand at least the validity of fides quaerens intellectum. Certainly I don’t claim to have reached understanding yet, and I remain open to the possibility that my faith is misplaced…)

      On the more interesting question of what I mean by priesthood, I can speak a little more clearly, because I did not do so above (one of the problems of trying to say something profound with a two week old baby at home). Like Matthew here I follow Alexander Schmemann’s sense that humanity’s vocation is essentially sacerdotal. Within this there are many kinds of priesthood, and I guess part of what I’m suggesting is that we shouldn’t use “priest” in a univocal sense. For example, as you mention, males also contribute to conception, and there may be a priestly quality to that. It is not the same, though, as the priestly quality which enables women to bear children in the body and present them to the world.

      I take for granted that all priesthood is sacrificial and mediatorial. But there are different kinds of sacrifice and different kinds of mediation, and not all are available to everyone. If that is true — and you may not agree that it is, though it seems rather obvious to me — then it is also possible to conceive of one type of priesthood (the ordained Christian priesthood) as limited to certain subjects. That says nothing much about whether it should be.

      Also, though, as I say, I’m not trying to “claim” all that much, I wouldn’t go so far as to further claim that “the majority of Covenant contributors” agree with me. Maybe a majority don’t think me mad, but that’s a different matter.

  2. Yes. Although we haven’t done a poll, I think it’s quite an overstatement to claim that the majority of Covenant contributors find Sam’s claims ‘compelling’ or ‘liberating’, though I suspect several would agree with it and several others would find it interesting/tolerable/useful/etc. Many others, of course, probably hate it. So no one needs to adopt the position of an embattled theological minority here. What is useful is to allow someone the theological space to continue articulating and exploring a position which is hardly alien to the worldwide and age-old ecclesia. More on that below.

    Many odd things in your response, Craig. For example, It seems odd to call the distinction natural/supernatural medieval lipstick, as it is a standard part of Christian terminology from the patristic period. I take it you were employing comedic hyperbole or channeling Barth polemically (deliberately? unintentionally?).

    Similarly (just to be a little snarky), both medieval people (one group) and ‘medievalists’ (scholars who work on medieval history, thought, etc.) were and are aware of semen and ovum. I fail to see how that bears on Sam’s argument, unfortunately like most of what you said. It doesn’t change the fact that women play a unique role in bearing and giving birth to life that men simply cannot and thus they engage in a peculiar form of sacrificial mediation that we do not. Our knowledge of modern science doesn’t change that, unless you live in a world of which ‘medievalists’ really are unaware. When you give birth naturally to a live human being through a process of extreme physical suffering, do let us know.

    To return to the first point, though. I’m personally quite intrigued by the litany of material contained on the websites that Sam refers us to, namely, because I think he’s right to point out that most of the modern-day folks quoting material in reference to the ‘priesthood of Mary’ really miss the point when they automatically jump to thinking that all the patristic, medieval, and early modern Catholic quotations they point to necessarily constitute an argument for women’s ordination today. The Fathers (and others) certainly didn’t think so. Thus, instead, one ought rightly to ask what the Fathers (and others) thought they were doing by simultaneously believing it obvious that (a) women are not to be ordained to priesthood in the Church but also that (b) the Virgin Mary exercised some kind of priesthood in bearing Christ. A great series of assumptions or unspoken theological positions must lie behind such thoughts, and they are undoubtedly worth exploration.

    So I take Sam’s post as an excellent example of *fides quarens intellectum*, even if I myself hold a contrary position on the actual question of women’s ordination.

  3. What should not be missed here is Sam’s tears.

    I’m not sure one should engage in the arguments that lay below the surface until one has sought to understand what brings Sam to the point of tears.

    And this brings back what for me is coming to be a new theme: paganism. We look at the fact that a woman brings forth a child, is it natural to ask scientific questions first? No! Unless you are completely heartless, your first response is awe and wonder. This for me, the non-academic with respect to paganism, believes is the value in “returning” to pagan roots.

    So maybe it is sub-Christian (pagan) to use the word priest to refer to a mother but it seems to me to be a good place to start the journey to the One who you will find has made both mother and child.


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