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Priesthood and sexuality

The feast of St Mary is celebrated extensively, in many ways, both in Malta and Gozo. Feasting continues to escalate particularly in secular manifestations. Another kind of escalation is going on abroad in the interests of feminists and the mythical dimension of the Assumption. Why does the Assumption attract such attention?

The festive aspect was certainly a motivating force when the Assumption story was given a fresh and even polemical impetus in 1950 with its dogmatic definition. As that very fine Dominican theologian, Benedict Ashley, says, "Pius XII hoped that the radiant Assunta would become a rainbow of hope to an age of death and despair" (marked by World War II and the Holocaust). However, I hardly think that escapist partying, including possibly drug sprees, are exactly what Pius XII had envisaged.

The theme has proved to be fascinating for the new generation of feminists like Julia Kristeva and Tina Beattie, because of its highlighting of the importance of the body and the consequent raising of some gender issues.

The risen body of a woman, the New Eve, is associated with that of the risen body of Christ, the New Adam. The complementarity of male and female that had been at the very core of the Creation story is underlined in a parallel way in this conclusive episode of the central part of the history of salvation.

Some feminists have still asked themselves whether because of the subordination of Mary to Jesus the myth of inferiority of Eve to Adam is not being confirmed. Other feminists have sought to exorcise this fear by re-examining the theological answers to the question as to why God became incarnate as a male and not a female. The answer that Aquinas had given was that there was no essential reason for not becoming a woman other than the mere contingency that at the time women could not become Rabbis.

Another motif was developed in the fairly recent Papal document, Mulieris Dignitatem. By God becoming incarnate as a male and not a female one main purpose was achieved: "Men were shown that true manhood is not to be achieved by violence and rape, but by a self-giving love that accepts the role of servant in relation to the woman."

In any case the subordination of Mary to Jesus is clearly not rooted in any lack of equality between genders.

Is this of any relevance to the role of women in the Church today?

Somewhat paradoxically these recent discussions of the Assumption topic have been used to persuade women that the priesthood should not be of any great attraction to them.

A suggestion of the kind has been extracted even out of our own archbishop's excellent book on the Church. Mgr Paul Cremona sought to picture the Church not as an organisation with a hierarchical structure (priest-dominated) for the sake of the effective management of its activity in the world. Rather, he pictures it primarily as a life-sharing community that models itself on the Trinity in order to anticipate here-and-now the heavenly way of life.

Hans Urs von Baldhazar had described the first (priest-driven) aspect of the Church as its Petrine dimension. He described the second (contemplative, mystical) aspect as the Marian dimension of the Church. Clearly, the Marian dimension is much more important and higher in dignity than the Petrine. Indeed, our Church is the church of the saints, not of the popes and cardinals. We look up to St Catherine of Sienna and St Theresa of Avila, not Innocent III or Cardinal Richelieu.

Tina Beattie supplies some scathing criticism of the argument that the Assumption of Our Lady makes it manifest that women are not being discriminated against when they are excluded from the higher rungs of the Ecclesiastical hierarchy. The real question is whether the Church is being consistent with its own account of the purpose achieved through the way in which Jesus Christ lived his life as a man. Many feminists have said that he is the only great man in human history not to have been at all sexist.

Your discussion in the catalogue of the Caravaggio exhibition at St John's on his painting of the Assumption seems to have set a small philosophic cat among the big art-historical pigeons. How come?

In my essay I showed that Caravaggio's treatment of death expresses the transition from the medieval idea that death is total destruction of the self because I am only a body of which the soul is merely the form, to the view that is eloquently expressed in the funeral liturgy after the Council of Trent where I am deemed to be essentially my soul, and therefore the death of my body is of no very great significance.

Caravaggio paints the Assumption following the Byzantine model of the Dormition but instead of showing Christ taking up the soul of Mary in the shape of a doll-like figure, he shows her immortal spirit appearing in the dynamic movement of the vast expanse of red drapery placed above the bed, from within which a flood of light emanates and transfigures the death scene.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Nicole Bugeja.

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