Blog Template Theology of the Body: Queen Susan's Bow: Woman as model for the role of the laity

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Queen Susan's Bow: Woman as model for the role of the laity

(Because movie audiences these days are excited about the forthcoming "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," which I love)

When the film 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" was first released, various feminists began cooing over one particular moment in C.S. Lewis' adapted story: Susan Pevensie fires a well-aimed shot from her bow and mortally wounds the wicked little dwarf who is about to kill her brother in the Great Battle. This moment is notably absent from The Book, wherein Lewis, that consummate and self-identifying layman, points out that he would rather not have his women fighting in battles, for the mere fact that they are women.

As a joyful gender essentialist, I believe that there are intrinsic gifts, responsibilities, and vocations inherently connected with being male or female, and I love being the latter, because it means being a mother and a sister and a daughter to the rest of the world, in a variety of ways. I think that a good solid patriarchy can be wonderfully advantageous to ambitious young women. I trust my father and almost always defer to his wishes; I obey my husband, with God's help. I think that men are naturally inclined to lead and protect women, and I think that women should let them do so. But I am not one to shrink from battles.

Queen Susan, the Gentle and Accurate, takes up her weapon and defeats a demon, and with that she joins the generals Deborah and St. Joan of Arc as women who I, purportedly submissive and non-feminist gender essentialist, want to imitate. Why? Because on Lewis' allegory, we all know that Susan has fired her shot in a spiritual battle between an enslaving, death-dealing, and demonic power, and it is on this sort of battlefield, that we truly are all one, neither male nor female, in Christ Jesus. Having delivered another traditonal household code in Ephesians 5, wherein women obey while men sacrifice, Paul turns immediately in Ephesians 6 to the weapons which all take up in order to deal out death blows to the Enemy of souls. This warfare is the prerogative of every Christian Person. And the offensive is not optional. It is on the battlefield where the Church is attacked by a ruthless enemy that gender is truly relativized in light of the expediency of Christ's Kingdom, such that women as well as men must take up arms to deal death blows to demons. Was there ever a besieged army that cut its ranks in two at the height of a conflict? Why would the Church do such a thing? Why would the Church not promote her daughters in the gender-neutral Christian mandates to evangelize, to chatechize, to do systematic theology... in short, to do warfare? And in this regard, the Church is no civic community. The Church is, in many ways, an army that needs every baptized person to bear arms in the context of its critical, eschataological Battle.

At this same time, this does not mean that the Church has the option of counting women in that apostolic succession which adminsters the sacraments and formulates doctrine. As Kalistos Ware has put it, "to no woman has Jesus said, 'he who hears you hears no woman did He make the promise to ratify in heaven what she has bound or loosed on earth." And, as Thomas Hopko concurs in On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood, to speak of women being "excluded" from the Christian episcopacy is absurd and nonsensical, because "exclusion" supposes a possible and prior "inclusion," which does not in fact exist in the history of the Christian tradition. But neither does the Church have the option of preventing women from passing on the Faith once delivered to the (male) apostles through the teachings of her female doctors and mystics, or engaging in the ministry of an apostolate, or prophecying, or leading and initiating in the Church, in as much as the Church may require. If we are an army under attack, then we need all hands on deck.

It is in this way that the Church's understanding of women corresponds to her understanding of the laity in general. The sacrament of Holy Orders is not one of those sacraments to which everyone is entitled; the conferring of ordination is simply the Church's obedient acknowledgment of those rare and particular men whom God has called to serve His Church as priests. At the same time, the Church makes it very clear that her ministry, her vocation of taking Christ's light into each and every dark corner of the earth, properly belongs to those women who are not ordained by virtue of their essential vocation to the lay state, and to those men who are not ordained by virtue of having received an alternative calling. The Church's seeming "no" to women who might like to be priestesses is really at the same time the Church's resounding and urgent "yes" to the lay vocation, in which the gift of our Confirmation flourishes in the most radical ways, because God has entrusted the more dangerous responsibilities of non-ordained ministry to all women and to Christian laymen.

And this brings me to two conclusions. The Church reminds us that at her very heart there is not an oppressive patriarchal system, but a woman. It makes sense that a Church that is essentially Marian would call to her women to model the patience, surrender, and perfect love that is required of all her people in their original lay state; perhaps it is in this regard that John Paul II stated that "women will be the most fruitful element in the Apostolate." And with this mandate in mind, as women who submit in love to the Catholic tradition, and who, in speaking first to Christ, remain silent or speak very softly in the Church, by all means let us do so wholeheartedly; but let us carry a very big stick.