Monday, November 07, 2011

Matter and form

In the Catholic theology of the sacraments, what is required for validity, that is, sacramental reality, is the correct combination of matter and form, the right matching of something material and spoken words indicating intention. If the match is defective, the sacrament does not happen. People often react against this as legalistic and obsessive...which it can become. But even on my most Vatican II days, I recognized something very respectful in this way of thinking.

If I may stretch things a bit, when people say that the exact words are not important to God (Isn't that just superstitious magic?) or that the right kind of physical being is likewise not so important to him (times and cultures change, after all) as our hearts and our faith, first I roll my eyes. Inwardly if not outwardly. Then these thoughts occur to me.

We live in a culture which has recently decided that words, in the properly approved context, have the force of weapons. In most Western countries, you can be jailed or fine for speaking improperly. We call it "hate speech". And what is Political Correctness if not an obsessive concern with exactly the right words?

And we also live in a culture that, on the surface, adores Nature once again, desiring to let each creature be respected for itself rather than for our grubby speciesist human arrogance and greed. Did it never occur to the loosey-goosey bien-pensants that if God chose wine rather than milk for the Mass, that there might be something about wine itself, as a creature, which was fit, apt, congruent and uniquely eloquent? That because of what it is, it can mean things that milk cannot?

After I roll my eyes, I also think to myself that lack of care for powerful symbols and rituals --based on an adolescent ethical sensibility rooted in subjective intention and wilfulness-- is just egotism and confusion. Which is not a bad description of adolescence. No matter how old you are.

Anyhow, what got me thinking like this was having lunch last week with my friend BG from Canada, who makes her living in the Church and specifically in writing and teaching about the liturgy and the sacraments. The generational shift in the priesthood that she sees going on could be described in one way as a change from the groovy to the prissy. The cool and groovy liberal priests of the Vatican II generation are greying now and passing on (though not quietly), replaced by a new crop of young guys who too often, according to BG, confuse orthodoxy and tradition with a lot of lace vestments. She calls their ascendancy "the prissification of the priesthood."

Since I support the continuation of the all-male priesthood, her comments provoked me to wonder what it was about men which made them uniquely the right "matter" for the sacrament of Holy Orders. As I said to her, and continue to wonder, if Jesus and his Church only intended men to be the priesthood, what is it about the masculine which makes this a match?

Take Baptism, for instance. It is about washing, cleansing, you use water. The meaning and the matter match. Neither sand, confetti nor beer would have the natural voice to say and mean what the ritual wants to. The same goes for all of them: there is a natural vocabulary and syntax into which the sacrament settles.

So, if priesthood requires an adult male, vir, what is it about manhood that makes it the natural and non-replaceable material for that Catholic sacrament? And why might grooviness and prissiness both be misunderstandings of it?

It is astonishing how little thought and attention has been given to that question of late.

For millennia, I think it was largely (though not entirely) taken for granted because masculinity was not a contested and subverted issue*. But now in our feminist world, I suspect that fear of a shitstorm of angry women and their fembot male allies keeps even upholders of the male-only sacerdotium rather quiet about it*. Plus, I doubt they have reflected very deeply on it. As well as the likelihood that there are still many gay males in the pipeline, even among the orthodox traditionalists, and this is a threatening subject for them, too.

My intuitive speculation is that if you ordain women, you lose your ground for resisting same-sex marriage. What modern feminism really means is that men and women must be counted interchangeable, that gender difference itself (except when it benefits women and hobbles men) is an illusion. And that level of unreality cannot have good consequences.

But unless the Church can give more than a formal response (Jesus didn't do it so we can't) to feminist advocates of womenpriests, it will not only seem weak, but give tacit support to an all-male priesthood with too few men in it.

*At a traditional Lutheran blog, a traditional Anglican takes up the issue head on. And I recognize that Christianity itself constitutes a "contestation" of classical masculinity...which only makes the masculine priesthood more important.

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