Reflections on Celibacy and the Role of Women in the Church

Gillian Walker. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 1. 2004.

This divinity of women is still hidden, veiled. Could it be what “man seeks even as he rapes it”?
~ Luce Irigaray


Writing this journal is painful, halting. I have cramps and a heaviness, as if I were pregnant with a child, so disreputable, so transgressive, it cannot be born.


In the Advent ceremony of reconciliation, a woman preaches the most articulate sermon I have heard in my parish church. But she introduces her talk by saying she is nervous because she is preaching before 24 Jesuit priests. Her comment seems so normal that I don’t notice it consciously until she has vanished and the 24 old men in purple stoles, exuding ceremonial power, walk down the side aisles of the church to take their places, from which they nod invitations to penitents to come and murmur their confessions. I know they are kind and mean well, but I am overcome with a trembling nausea. As a woman I don’t, belong here. I gather my book bag. On the way out, I pass the plaster Virgin with her racks of candles. She is bundled in blue and white, veiled but pierced with silver, jagged swords, which, shooting outward, form a strange halo around her. Her hands are folded in prayer, her eyes rolled upward in a ghastly, passive submission to suffering. I am almost running now, and I gasp for air. The shock of the cleansing coldness of a starlit winter night is liberating, as if I momentarily have escaped drowning.


For the first 300 years of its history, Christianity existed as a wide diversity of sects encompassing different ways of interpreting the Jesus mission. Early Christianity’s complex and ambivalent location as a coloni/ed sect within a dying pagan empire ultimately resulted in its fundamentalist turn, since it internalized the culture and philosophy of the empire it replaced.

With the triumph of “orthodoxy” in the fourth century, a single authoritarian, essentially fundamentalist Christian sect would dictate the Christian paradigm for the next 1300 years. In its insistence on the primacy of narrowly mandated interpretations of what Jesus said and did and meant, that paradigmkyriarchal, misogynist, and sexually pessimistic-has served to maintain ecclesial power structures throughout the ages.

In contrast with the winning orthodox paradigm, Gnosticism, the losing Christian tradition, produced texts that suggest a fascinating alternate direction Christianity might have taken. Gnostic texts were mystical, speculative, and poetic and represented an ongoing outpouring of revelation that could be achieved equally by men and by women. In the current ferment over reinterpreting ancient texts and traditions, feminist theologians and historians are developing a Christology in which women have an equal role in all aspects of the Church community. They are drawing on the richness of these suppressed “heretical” Christian texts, reconstructing early church traditions where women played a priestly role (Torjeson, 1995; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1998, 1999), and using the postmodern idea of identifying suppressed narratives found in the margins and gaps of the orthodox canon. Other modern theologians, some of whom are openly gay, have questioned ecclesial claims to a Divine mandate for the Church’s antisex teachings. They argue instead that sexual love provides a space that opens to the Divine. In the relational narrative, sexual love can become a space where God is known or, in the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1969), as an act “in which two people … use all the resources of body, mind, heart and imagination emotion and will in order to celebrate the love that has been given them by God, and in so doing to praise him” (p. 119).

Merton believed that the ancient traditions of Neo-Platonism and Stoicism were responsible for the Catholic separation of flesh and spirit, for “degrading matter, stimulating self-hatred and a loathing for the flesh” (p. 115). The Church Fathers’ misogynist, antisexual, and antipleasure readings of the Gospels form the foundation for the elaboration of a Christian patriarchal sex/gender system in which male ecclesial power is aligned with sexual purity and is accompanied by a profound and punishing anxiety about the temptations of the flesh, always disgustingly visible in women’s bodies (Sipe, 1990, 1995).

Even today, seminarians are trained to repress their attraction to women’s bodies, to despise their own sexuality, and to fix their adoring eyes only on the wounded, glamorized, seminaked Divine male body. Homoerotic feelings are bound to be elicited by the monotheistic God, yet male celibate clergy, strong enough to stand up to the Devil, are still helpless before the seductions of women. As a result, today as before, when a priest disobeys his vow of celibacy with a woman, tradition tells him that he is only human, but the woman is his seductress. She is an Eve leading him to betray his promise to God.

While abuse of male children and teenagers is the scandal of the day, by all accounts the abuse of women and female late adolescents by clergy is an even greater problem but one that in the misogynous culture of the Church, where women are shamed into believing themselves to be the seducer, women have been complicit in keeping hidden (Pfeiffer, 2002a, b) Like abused young men, these women are intimidated by shame, fear, and embarrassment, but their silence is supported by church doctrine that has historically seen them as seductresses who tempt the priest, rather than as victims of the Father.

Mandatory celibacy, misogyny, and patriarchy cemented the power of Catholic fundamentalism. They are at the root of the resulting crisis in the Church.


My Catholic education about sex and gender began when I was six. I was in England visiting my Scottish grandmother, an austere Catholic with piercing blue eyes and white hair drawn in a bun. Her first and perhaps only present to me was A Book of English Martyrs, a red, leather-bound volume with black and white woodcuts of martyrs shown in various states of ecstatic prayer. Their heads were bowed in humble submission to whatever their torturers had in store for them, or they were pictured at the moment before their execution. The text would have put De Sade to shame, and there was always that faint perfume of sexuality wafting through the stories. My grandmother wanted me to know that some of these ravaged folk were my ancestors and that, by implication, should the time come, I would follow in their footsteps.

I read my little red volume passionately again and again and, despite the many times I have moved from one house to another, it faithfully shows up among my books. I soon added to my list of English martyrs those edifying Italian figures of determined virgins who, resisting sex, lost breasts, were tortured on wheels, and submitted to an assortment of gruesome ends.

Most of my time in my grandmother’s house was spent with the woman who had raised my mother. Sometimes, under Nanny’s supervision, I would draw crude versions of the crucifixion. But the most special treat was to sit in front of her precious reproduction of Veronica’s veil on which was impressed the tortured face of the about-to-be crucified Jesus. Jesus’ eyes were closed under translucent lids, but if I stared long and hard enough they would pop open and miraculously I would be face to face with the opaline eyes of a resuscitated God.

When I returned to America, Nanny gave me as a talisman a small, framed, black-and-white picture of Teresa of Lisieux. Dressed as a bride bearing a bouquet of roses, she appeared to be in ecstasy before a depiction of the bridegroom Jesus, the familiar, sad-eyed Jesus of the veil. At night, I would crawl out of bed to imagine myself a kind of amalgam of Teresa meeting her lover, Jesus, and one of my assorted female martyrs being slowly tortured as I resisted the dangerous desires of earthly males so that I could give myself utterly to the Divine lover.

Of course, 1 went to the mandatory Catholic school. Because I was a voracious reader and thus seemingly pious, the nuns appointed me head of the Decency Committee. My job was to censor sexual passages in the novels I read and to cut out pictures of seminude women from magazines in the school library. At about the same time as my stint with the Decency Police, I found my father’s bound copy of Ulysses and a first edition of Lady Chatterley ‘s Lover. I then began to understand something of the deliciousness of that forbidden apple and why the nuns so carefully attempted to deny us the slightest lick. Unfortunately, as the good nuns could have predicted, reading such novels led to secret autoerotic experiences that had to be confessed to priests who would assiduously ask for all the shameful and humiliating details.

As a daughter of Eve, I had been taught that the essence of sin was failure to keep a tight rein on my desire for sexual pleasure. I was encouraged to catalogue sexual sins for their severity (mine were always of the hell fire sort). I had been taught to hate my female body for its passionate, unruly ways. Church doctrine is infused with the message that women are transgressive, that feminine beauty is a tool of seduction, not a manifestation of intoriority-and that women must be kept in check and subordinated to men’s rule.

In a Catholic family, there were always visits with intellectual priests and monks who were friends of the family. It is hard to capture the air of eroticism suffusing those “fatherly” visits, the eroticism inherent in the oedipal power of the priest, with his privileged access to the Divine. Even after years of being committed to outgrowing paternal authority, I can still feel its frisson when I meet a priest whose sermon I admire. To paraphrase Jessica Benjamin (1988), I am still in love with the ideal of power that has been denied me. I may run out of the church in revulsion, but I still long for Communion’s surrender to the Divine in its most sublime sense. I still feel the erotic excitement when the ordinary falls away and the sacramental becomes inextricably mixed with the glorious male ceremonial exercise of liturgical power.


I am rereading Luce Irigaray’s (1988) essay, “Belief Itself.” She opens with a statement from a female analysand: “At the point in the mass, when they, the (spiritual) father and son are reciting together the ritual words of the consecration saying, This is my body, this is my blood’-I bleed” (pp. 25-26).

This analysand’s experience of bleeding is culturally and doctrinally complex. Bleeding marks female fertility and sexuality, yet it is also blood that makes women so impure that we cannot be officiants at the sacrifice. We are the descendants of the polluted, hemorrhaging woman who dared to touch Jesus’ robe. She was a woman so powerful in her faith that she caused his power to go out of him without his willing it, so powerful that she was cured of her bleeding. (Saved from her femaleness? Her pollution?)

In many early Christian texts, for a woman to enter the kingdom of heaven she must become “male.” Holy ascetic women fasted so vigorously that menstrual bleeding ceased, their breasts shriveled, and their withered bodies, no longer recognizable as female, were thought to be dazzlingly pure (Shaw, 1998). And yet, paradoxically, the blood offered in the holy sacrifice (from which women are banned) is biologically the blood of the mother: it has become the blood and body of the son.

Longing for the erased mother/woman is thus manifest in a theology that associates Jesus’ bleeding with his salvific feeding of humankind. In the Middle Ages, blood and milk were thought to be of the same origin, and ascetics had fantasies of drinking Jesus’ blood as they would mother’s milk (Bynum, 1987). In fact, in late medieval portraits, Christ feeds humanity with blood that streams from his nipple (Reineke, 1997.) In his death, then, Jesus, becoming/displacing the mother, appropriates a rather gruesome version of her nutritive role.

Despite the ever-present but dissociated female imago embedded in the Eucharistie sacrifice, it is an abjected mother, a negative space in the feeding ceremony, whose performance Catholic practice assigns to the robed males representing father and son. Their offerings of a flashing gold cup of wine and thin roundel of white flour no longer resemble the humble, nourishing fruits of the (maternal) earth, but are tamed, aestheticized, abstracted (masculinized), just as the fertile, nutritive mother is forgotten, displaced, erased, and ultimately debased.

But it was not always so. Feminist biblical scholars (Torjeson, 1995; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1998, 1999) tell us that, in the earliest forms of Christianity, women performed priestly roles; they were preachers and assumed ecclesial leadership. In fact, women’s discipleship was central to Jesus’ vision of a community made up of slaves, freed men, gentiles, Jews, the pure and the impure, men and women, believers and nonbelievers.

The central rites of the community were baptism and the agape meal, a communal meal of remembrance and forerunner of the more elaborated ritual of the Eucharist. Originally, the agape meal had no official priests consecrating it. Women played their typically focal role in the “table ministry,” organizing, preparing, and distributing the food. The evolution of the agape meal into a sacrificial enactment in a formal space, set apart from the community and controlled by male priests, was a later liturgical development.

By the third century, as orthodox Christians evolved a male ecclesiastical administrative structure and wrote theological texts that defined the inferior nature and role of women, women’s voices were silenced as prophets and preachers in the churches.

(That they lived in the margins is brilliantly attested by the accomplishments of such women as Macrima, Hildegarde of Bingen, Heloise, Hrotswitha Marguerite Porete, and Julian of Norwich [Dronke, 1984]). As the female role was appropriated by male priests, the generative and nutritive aspects of the agape ceremony shifted to the liturgical and sacrificial, and it was no longer a real meal centered on communal feeding and remembrance. By the High Middle Ages, priests had become symbolically feminized as they assumed the role of soul feeders, providers of a sacred “feast” at which all that was served was a tiny, thin (albeit sacred) wafer.


Benjamin (1988) writes:

Though the image of woman is associated with motherhood and fertility, the mother is not articulated as a sexual subject, one who actively desires something for herself … Just as the mother’s power is not her own, but is intended to serve her child, so, in a larger sense, woman does not have the freedom to do as she wills; she is not the subject of her own desire [p. 88].

Reading Benjamin, I saw in Mary, the archetype of the Christian mother/goddess, a pale trace of the fertile, sexual, archetypal mother/goddess of the ancient and Eastern religions. Mary is almost always bundled up to conceal her sexuality, and her power is not her own but, rather, lies in her ability to plead our case to the ruling Divine male hierarchy. Catholic teaching also erases Mary’s sexuality. She is spared the pains of childbirth that are visited on Eve’s daughters, and some traditions describe her son, Jesus, passing through her vagina as a ray of light without disturbing its sealed perfection. Jesus’ brothers and sisters, who crowd through the gospels, must be demoted to cousinhood so that Mary can remain chaste and Joseph, her husband, can model devoted celibacy.

In Christianity, woman’s sexuality is split off from the mother and is represented instead by the reformed prostitute, Mary the Magdalene, who is not a mother. The Magdalene’s central role in the Latin orthodox Church is that of ascetic performer of rituals of penitential mourning for her fallen state. Her props are a mirror, symbolizing beauty as vanity, and a skull, reminding us that women’s unbridled sexuality is inherited from mother Eve, whose sexual transgression brought the world death.

Catholic beliefs about sex/gender relationships are inscribed in a series of images of a weird Divine family. These images greet Catholics in every church; they have influenced Western constructions of gender, sexuality, and family power arrangements. The father God is notable for his absence, but the crucified son is raised high above the congregation, an almost-naked, wounded, subtly effeminate, desexualized, implicitly castrated image of male suffering. Below him a woman’s body, bundled in demure blue and white robes, her hair often veiled, raises hands in prayer and supplication: a maternal female body robbed of sexuality and exuding virginal submission to both the son/God and the absent father. Because the male God’s suffering constitutes expiation for Eve’s sin, and because mother Mary’s unique purity reverses Eve’s legacy, the mother-son pair constitutes a subtle but omnipresent reminder of the murderous destructiveness of women’s sexuality.

Eve always shadows the two Mary’s. Mary Magdalene’s renounced sexuality reminds us of the perpetual dangers awaiting women who desire as Eve desired. Mary the mother’s celibacy reverses the sin of mother Eve, who abandoned God. She morphs into mother Ave (the first word of the Hail Mary), who marries God.

Mary’s chastity also does the work of expiating Adam’s choice of lustful sex with Eve over loyalty to a jealous, lonely God. Mary chooses to go to bed only with God and thus refuses the pleasures of an earthly partner. Her devotion to her son (who is also God) is so profound that, in this Divine and curiously incestuous family, Jesus is frequently shown as his mother’s heavenly bridegroom.

The moral of Christian sex/gender discourse: Men are wounded and suffer because they fall prey to women’s sexual powers whose ultimate result is the death of the god/man. Virginity and submission to the male are idealized as feminine expiation, just as male celibacy is constituted as a sign of superior power and godlikeness. Going to bed with God is better than sex. Human sexual love only gets you into trouble and has no good role to play in a Christian narrative of restoration and rebirth.


We Catholics grew up believing that the Gospels were Spirit-inspired histories detailing authentic facts of Jesus’ life, written by people close to him. For us, the ancient pagan world represented the idolatrous, sinful, flesh-pleasuring Other that Christianity transformed and converted. However, the Gospel authors, who never knew Jesus and wrote their Gospels some 60 years after his death, employed many of the dramatic conventions and the language of the popular Hellenistic novel as they assemble the Gospels from a hybridity of sources, including Jesus-story traditions, lost-“sayings” texts, Hebrew scriptures, pagan myths, and stories of pagan holy men.

Rather than the essentially unknowable words of the historical Jesus, it is the voluminous exegetical works by the early orthodox Church fathers that set the course for all later reading of the Gospels and Pauline texts. And these writers were profoundly influenced by the dominant pagan philosophies that emanated from Athens: Stoicism, with its ethic of sexual continence, and Neo-Platonism, with its misogynous teachings.

The Stoics believed that “sophrosyne,” or control of the passions of the flesh, most particularly sexual passion, was a sign of moral authority and of man’s realizing his rational/ spiritual nature. Man should engage in sexual acts not for pleasure, but solely for the utilitarian purpose of procreation. Homosexual acts and sexual acts employing birth control represented unseemly fleshly indulgence. Christians took the Stoic position one step further and taught that enkraleia, or complete sexual renunciation, was a sign of an evolved spiritual being strong enough in reason and devotion to resist the pull of the material/fleshly (read female).

Neo-Platonic thought was embedded in Stoic beliefs, importing from Aristotelian biology a misogynous identification of woman with “matter.” She is thus inherently inferior to “spiritual” man, with his strength, reason, trustworthiness, honesty (and the ability to control her passions and emotions).

In the misogynous, sex-fearing ecclesial system of late antiquity, pious Christian women were encouraged to rectify women’s devastating seductiveness, which had caused the disaster of the Fall, by becoming consecrated virgins like their role model, Mary. The tradition of female mutilation of the body in order to destroy all traces of its unruly outpouring of sexual attractions permeates Christian hagiography. Holy women starve themselves, enclose themselves in tombs until they die, and delight in mutilating their faces and bodies until they become repulsive. A holy woman believed that, since her fleshly difference from Jesus excluded her from the altar, she could at least be like Jesus in the extremity of her physical suffering (Bynum, 1982, 1987).

In the early Church, male hostility to and fear of a woman’s body was sublimated in the often gruesome, sadomasochistic, eroticized tales of the lives and deaths of female martyrs. For early Christians, if a good Christian woman was a virgin, a better Christian woman was a virgin who died in particularly horrible way for her faith; better still if on the way to death she resisted gruesome tortures designed to force her to break her vow to her Heavenly Bridegroom that she would remain chaste.

Maintaining one’s virginity became an almost athletic sport. Paradoxically, it was one way women could escape the tyranny of male control. By insisting on virginity or, if married, on sexual continence in the face of a pagan husband’s objections, a woman’s piety could instigate a male “snuff” drama that ended in the woman’s desired triumph, her instant martyrial Heavenly marriage to the Divine Bridegroom.

As my childhood studies can attest, these virgin martyrs and ascetic women made weirdly powerful role models for religious Christian women, while at the same time they seemed to fulfill the perverse erotic fantasies of misogynous men (by whom, of course, they had often been invented).


The twin of the early Christian/pagan holy woman who abandons a degraded femininity for an idealized chaste maleness is the celibate male whose refusal of sexuality is used to displace and appropriate women’s nurturant and generative roles. The reward for celibacy is also a marriage to God, a marriage whose forbidden homoerotic overtones can be denied or repressed only when the worshipper assumes the “female” position, or when he constructs God-as-mother so as to neutralize erotic male-male aspects of his relationship with a deity figured as male.

Modern representations of Jesus attempt to desexualize him by endowing him with a feminine, pretty-boy demeanor that, paradoxically, only increases his homoerotic appeal. In addition, the central Christian religious symbol is a crucified Jesus whose actual male crucified body would have been naked; but Jesus’ penis has to be modestly hidden under a thin veil that sometimes reveals or suggests its outline (Steinberg, 1983). Erotic art illustrates that which is veiled and thus “forbidden’ becomes erotically charged. Although “seeing” the divine phallus is forbidden, its transgressive subliminal presence is homoerotically charged to male celibates who see themselves as “married” to Jesus.

The complex homoerotic relationship of the worshiper to the Divine Phallus has been explored by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz (1994). He has deconstructed the Hebrew representations of the male Deity that Christians inherited and elaborated. He notes that, for Christians, when St. Paul says that a man stands in the same relationship to Christ as a woman to a man, Paul is imposing a heterosexual metaphor of desire on what is, in fact, a homoerotic association. To be married to Christ, the holy male renounces sexuality and becomes a “eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven.”

In that sense, a celibate priest is feminized. Indeed, and as Mark Jordan (2000) writes, he even camps it up in liturgical lace. Yet, in the context and structure of Church patriarchy, he loses none of the prerogatives of male power. By appropriating a female persona, a priest implicitly enacts the homoerotic aspects of his relationship with a male father/God. Thus he attempts to displace Mary, whose claim to heaven is her unique virginal experience of sleeping with God. As a male “virginal bride” in relation to a male God bridegroom, a celibate celebrates his divine marriage in texts that are as fulsomely erotic as any in secular love poetry.

Eilberg-Schwartz (1994) points out that the erotic romance is intensified and made more complex because the male God is also the all-powerful Divine father who is frequently envisioned as instigating murderous rivalries because he has only oneblessing to give. Such a God is the object of male ambivalence about the father’s power and about the subject’s desire for the father, his wish to be desired by the lather, to be like him, and his failure to attain the ideal the father represents.

The Christian narrative hypercharges this homoerotic father-son relationship in that, unlike the celibate Yahweh, the Christian father God also is engaged in a primary heterosexual romance with the Virgin. His opening of her womb, his fathering of his Divine son through her body, leaves the male worshipper on the sidelines, displaced by the Divine romance and by the father’s primary attention to a woman whose sexual powers must be carefully erased by her rivals. By the 16th century, even the long tradition of Mary’s breast feeding has “dried up.”


Rivalry for God’s singular blessing can create murderous jealousies as Cain and Abel demonstrated. But, in Christianity, male-male rivalry is displaced onto the male-female relationship. While Mary is constructed as the asexual idealized mother, with no desire of her own, both her gender and her role as a screen soliciting the projection of primitive longings for the semiotic mother, threatens male power. This experience of threat is sometimes repressed by displays of obsessively fervent devotion, as seen, for example, in the behavior of the current Pope, whose early loss of his mother is sublimated in an over-the-top Mariology.

But, if mother Mary pulls for male vulnerability and jealousy, had the Gnostic tradition of early Christianity survived, the other, “sexy” Mary, the Magdalene, would have been still more threatening to her celibate male rivals. The Magdalene was known in Gnostic tradition as Jesus’ koinonos, a word that is most correctly translated as consort, a woman with whom a man has had sexual intercourse (Haskins, 1993, p. 40). In the recently rediscovered Gnostic texts, Peter rages at Mary Magdalene’s prominence with Jesus and in the Gospel of Philip, 63-64, it is said that “Christ loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on the mouth” (Robinson, 1978, p. 148).

Many early Christian worshippers believed that the Magdalene was Jesus’ spouse, so it is little wonder that the Latin orthodox clergy destroyed Gnostic texts, which elevated Mary Magdalene and Salome above the men in Jesus’ affections. Indeed, in those early texts these figures are venerated as teachers and theologians, and in Gnostic hands even wicked Mother Eve morphs into a benefactress who, like Prometheus, sought to acquire learning for humanity (Robinson, 1978).

The fate of Mary Magdalene in Christian hagiography represents the triumph over Gnosticism of a Latin Christian orthodoxy led by males who were both misogynous and obsessed with celibacy, and who constructed Jesus as the model celibate. In the Latin orthodox tradition, the Magdalene’s close relationship to Jesus vanishes and she metamorphoses into the familiar image of the prostitute who trails around after Jesus, wringing her hands, weeping, and begging his forgiveness for her sexual transgressions.


In recent decades feminist theologians and historians of early Christianity (Schaberg, 1987; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1988, 1999; Brock, 1998; Ruether, 1998) have been engaged in the project of disrupting traditional readings of andocentric Biblical and patristic texts with the goal of revealing “[the] patriarchal structures and andocentric mind-sets” of Church tradition (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1988, p. 31). By interpreting texts from the perspective of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (p. lui), these scholars analyze how the texts reflect and enforce the message of the ancient patriarchal “ecclesial-cultural” contexts that shaped them (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1988). These critical readings also attempt to reclaim suppressed memories of the religious suffering of marginalized women and to retrieve submerged countercultural narratives, such as the homoeroticism frequently found in the Christian texts (Boswell, 1980; Goss, 1993).

Jesus, for example, violated cultural norms by accepting a gift of ointment from a woman who was known locally as a prostitute; he pointed out that her loving act placed her above the socially prominent and virtuous male Pharisee with whom he was dining. In violation of pollution laws, he healed a woman whose discharge of blood would have made him impure; to the dismay of his followers, he chatted easily with a five-times-married and ritually impure Samaritan woman. In addition, Jesus challenged the divorce laws that put women at a profound social disadvantage. He made friends with “prostitutes,” was compassionate toward adulteresses, and generally attacked misogynous practices.

The Gospels also make clear that, contrary to local mores, Jesus traveled with women who became his close disciples. It is likely that most of these women were married to other disciples and that these husband and wife pairs established a tradition on which Paul drew as he charged male-female missionaries with the work of establishing his network of churches. The existence of missionary teams where men and women had equal roles provides evidence that women played the roles of “priests” in the early church, and that priests were married.

On the question of Jesus’ celibacy, historians working on reconstructing the historical Jesus (Funk, 1993; Phipps, 1996) as well as feminist and queer theologians (Althaus-Reid, 2000; Goss, 1993) argue that there is no reference to Jesus as a celibate in the Gospels, nor is there Gospel evidence that Jesus did not marry. In fact, Robert Funk (1993) notes that the majority of scholars in the Jesus Seminar (the major think tank of Biblical historians working on the problem of reconstructing the “historical Jesus”) concluded that it is most probable that Jesus was not celibate and that his consort was Mary Magdalene (pp. 220-221). Paul, himself once married but preferring celibacy, admitted that he had no teaching; from Jesus on the matter. As the only writer who could actually know anything about Jesus’ actual life, Paul, tellingly perhaps, failed to cite Jesus’ “celibate” life as an example for others. The earliest strains of the celibacy tradition may reflect Stoic ideals or may exist because early Christians, preaching to a market of potential pagan converts, wanted Jesus to be seen as no less virtuous than pagan holy men, who took vows of virginity. The fourth century obsession with the pleasures of celibacy, which resulted in the foundational teachings of Augustine and Jerome, may have been an outgrowth of an ascetic movement that swept the Eastern empire.

Similarly, Mary’s virginity has been rethought in the light of critical Biblical scholarship. German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann (1994) points out that, just as the tradition of Jesus’ celibacy was influenced by the example of pagan holy men, so too was the tradition of Mary’s virginity influenced by pagan myths that existed in many religions of the Roman Empire. Here, a god impregnates a virgin, the result being the birth of a redeeming child. In Christian interpretations of the Gospel texts, this ancient belief of the God-virgin union became entangled with Stoic philosophy equating continence/virginity with moral authority.

Schaberg (1987) and others have gone even further, arguing that the Christian Gospels and texts of the first through third centuries reflect pagan and Jewish traditions that emphasize Jesus’ illegitimacy. They even suggest the possibility that Mary was a victim of rape, which the Christian obsession with Mary’s purity would thus seek to suppress.

If we apply a hermeneutics of suspicion to the tradition of Mary’s virginity, Mary’s story can be stripped of its encrusted idealizations. She can now be read not as an anomaly, so unlike all women that no woman can aspire to be like her, but as a very human, poor woman, struggling with sexual oppression and stigma. As Latin American theologian Marcella Altheas-Reid (2000) argues, the majority of poor women who have been objects of male sexual abuse struggle to make loving lives for themselves and their families. This Mary-or under her Jewish name, Miriam-can become meaningful to all women, particularly to the marginalized of the earth.


Love: Such a Soul says Love, swims in the sea of joy, that is in the sea of delights, flowing and running out of the Divinity. And so she feels no joy, for she is joy itself. She swims and flows in joy, without feeling any joy, for she dwells in Joy and Joy dwells in her.
~ Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls

In 1310 Marguerite Porete was condemned by an all male court and burned as a heretic. Porete steadfastly refused to repudiate her book, which was addressed to a female audience, centered on a female divine (Dame Amour), and described a woman’s ecstatic spiritual experience. Porete (ca. 1298) implicitly challenged the patriarchal and absolute authority of the earthly church, which Porete termed the Church of Fear or the Little Church of Reason, as opposed to her vision of the Greater church of Love.

Porete lived on the margins of medieval social categories. She was a woman who dared to write theology in the French, vernacular rather than in the elegant Latin of orthodox theological treatises. She was neither a member of a convent nor married, and her ecstatic mystical writings represent a woman’s celebration of the unmediated immanence of God. It reclaimed a Christology centered on love, relatedness, mutuality, and a personal experience of the Divine.

Porete did not ignore the erotic, nor even the physical, as a road to the experience of Divine love. Rather she challenged the patriarchal structures of orthodoxy based on the primacy (and tyranny) of “reason.” Implicit in her radical vision was the demand for dismantling the hyriarchal power structures prized by the Church, especially hierarchies that privilege soul over body and men over women; that legitimate alliances with the rich and powerful (as a mendicant Porete was an advocate for the poor and the marginalized); and that assert man’s right to an exploitative lordship over nature.

Porete’s writings are akin to Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s (1988) equally joyful image of the Jesus movement as an egalitarian community centered on the “festive table sharing at a wedding feast” (p. 119) with God everywhere present in loving relationality. In fact, it is the often overlooked voices of religious women-from the medieval mystics-Marguerite Porete (ca. 1298), Hildegarde of Bingen (see Dronker, 1984), Julian of Norwich (1373) to 20th-century theologians such as Rosemary Ruether (1998), Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1988, 1999), and the radical Marcella Althaus-Reid (2000) to the activist Dorothy Day-that offer a vision of the Church as an energetic, loving, life-affirming, activist community of believers, radically different from the guilt-ridden, hierarchically bound “Church of Fear” of my childhood from which I, as a woman, was largely marginalized.

The new Catholicism demands the continuation of Vatican II’s mission of freeing the Church from its stultifying and destructive hierarchal structures, which have insisted on the “historical” right of a celibate male clergy to total, unquestioned ecclesial authority over the believer. The sad consequence of the patriarchal determination to maintain absolute power, has been an obsession with identifying and extirpating all traces of “heretical” thought in all its richness and with bending scripture to legitimate misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and intolerance of other religions.

In the end, the Church that Marguerite Porete (cited in Dronke, 1984) named the “Little Church” all too often has abandoned the marginalized and the wretched of the earth, who represent, after all, Jesus’ beloved Greater Church, a raggle-taggle collection of mismatched followers, women (including prostitutes), the mad and the crippled (including lepers), the polluted, hated tax collectors, men who seem strongly to love men, and the poorest of Judean peasants and fishermen.