In persona Christi: the rise of the phallogocentric Eucharist

In the middle of the third century a conflict emerged in the church over the use of water instead of wine as an element in the Eucharistic feast.  Attacking the practice in a letter to a fellow bishop, Cyprian of Carthage argued:

"For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered."[1]

Modern debates sometimes point to this very passage as the precedent requiring a male priest to stand in for the invisible Christ during the Eucharist.  But remarkably, a full 17 centuries passed from the time of Cyprian's letter to the moment when the Roman church would attempt to explicitly formulate teaching which excludes women from the role of Eucharistic celebrant.

It was 1975 when, during ecumenical discussions between Pope Paul VI and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury F. Donald Coggan, the question of women in the priesthood forced the formulation of an explicit doctrine of a male Eucharistic celebrant.[2]

In an initial letter to Archbishop Coggan, the Pope listed three "very fundamental reasons" for the inadmissibility of women's ordination:

  1. Christ's exclusive choice of male apostles (argument from scripture)
  2. The Church's continuation of Christ's example (argument from tradition), and
  3. The teaching of the Roman church (witness of the magisterium).[3]

The following year textual evidence supporting the Pope's initial arguments was released in Inter Insigniores.  Embedded in the longer argument against women's ordination, we find the following passage:

"...the priest, who alone has the power to perform [the celebration of the Eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration."[4]

The document further cites Thomas Aquinas:

St. Thomas Aquinas"'Sacramental signs,' says St. Thomas,' represent what they signify by natural resemblance.' The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this 'natural resemblance' which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

"Christ is of course the firstborn of all humanity, of women as well as men: the unity which he re-established after sin is such that there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3.28). Nevertheless, the incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying and alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God's plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus."[5]

Thus, according to the magisterium, the natural resemblance of a male priest to Christ is an essential part of the economy of salvation and absolutely essential to the sacred nature of the Eucharist.  Something within the female form lacks the natural resemblance necessary to serve as icon to the invisible Christ presiding over the Eucharistic celebration.

" would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ..."

Derrida describes thinking underlying this teaching as phallogocentrism, defined succinctly as an implicit assumption of the masculine (phallus) as central point of reference.  Women are defined only in terms of their relationship to men, only in terms of what they are lacking.[6]

Body of Christ by Laura Facey

Body of Christ by Laura Facey

Taking Derrida's words to heart, such privileging of male presence and female absence, leads to a playful (yet valid) iteration of the Eucharistic text which reads:

Take this, all of you, and eat it:
this is my penis which will be given up for you.

Such a reading, while perhaps shocking in the solemn context of the Eucharistic performance, serves as reductio ad absurdum, explicitly naming the only feature shared between male priests and Christ that a woman does not embody.

But two millennia of iterations have provided many novel expressions of the Eucharistic text.  In the next entry we will focus on another reading at least as ancient as the Catholic understanding.

[1] Epistle LXII.14.32b, emphasis added.

[2] Sara Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2006). 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Inter Insigniores.  Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,", emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., Section 5.

[6] Terence Brunk, "Derrida, Jacques," in Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory, ed. Elizabeth Kowalewski-Wallace (New York: Garland, 1997), 155-56.

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