Turning metaphors into laws

by Robert McClory

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Since troublesome issues like gay marriage and the ordination of women have become almost daily fodder for media commentators and bloggers, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George frequently seizes the opportunity to weigh in with the definitive position of the Catholic Church.

In a recent issue of the Catholic New World he juggled both issues at once using the image of Christ as bridegroom and the church as bride. It’s one of his favorite images, and I have heard him use it in public several times as a kind of instant closure in question-and-answer sessions. However, it’s an image that doesn’t work well in discussions, usually leaving the crowd staring in silent bewilderment.

In his Catholic New World column, George explains that “women can obviously do anything priests do, and often do it better but women cannot ‘represent’ a bridegroom.” Later in the piece, he alludes to consecrated virgins as people who give the church “a clearer understanding of herself as virgin and mother, the bride of Christ.”

Whatever value the bride and bridegroom imagery has, it is still an analogy, a metaphor and, in my opinion, does not serve well as the foundational depiction of the church.

I don’t think many priests think of themselves in terms of bridegrooms, and I don’t know of any parishioners that regard themselves as virginal brides of Christ. To make this metaphor the definitive argument against the ordination of women is to stretch the image hopelessly out of shape and to strip it of its meaning. To give it a kind of canonical authority so as to deny Holy Orders to women for all time is, I think, an abuse of something beautiful.

The New Testament abounds in images of relationship which Catholics have always found nourishing:

  • Christ is the head, we are the members.

  • Christ is the vine, we are the branches.

  • Christ is the shepherd, we are the flock.

  • Christ is the teacher, we are the students.

  • Christ is the dinner host, we are the guests.

Some are less familiar: Christ is the foundation stone, we are the bricks, for example, and there are the folksy ones that Jesus uses himself -- Jesus as the mother hen, we as the chicks or Jesus as the woman searching, we as the lost coin.

The bride and bridegroom metaphor, which is developed in Ephesians, Second Corinthians and the Book of Revelation, has an undeniable deep, mystical significance. Yet nowhere in the gospels does Jesus directly apply the bridegroom image to himself or the bridal image to his followers, though he does use bride and bridegroom and other wedding references in his parables.

There is no doubt that the priest at the altar represents Christ, but it’s also true that the priest at the altar represents the church body itself offering Christ to the Father. Yet no church authorities have gone so far as to suggest that only women preside at the Eucharist because they alone represent the church.

Metaphors are meant to help us meditate on mysteries beyond our full comprehension. They have limits and do not serve their intended purpose when forced into the role of barriers against the work of the Spirit in the church.

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