The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:42:12

The relation between priest and laity is meant to be spousal

Katie van Schaijik, May 30, 2019

A major premise of my thesis regarding the present dysfunction between the clergy and the laity in the Church is that the relation is meant to be spousal.

I used to think this was obvious and granted-by-all, even those who don't quite get what it might mean in practice. But I've learned lately that that's not true. So emphasized in teaching, custom, and mental habit are the metaphors of "Father," "Shepherd," and "Head," that the idea of priest as "Bridegroom" is all but lost in our communal awareness.

Not long ago, for example, I had lunch with a devout friend who is very conscious of the problem of clericalism. She has a master's degree in theology. When I sketched my thesis for her, she was taken aback. The idea that the priest is spouse of the Church and that the relation between a pastor and the local body of believers should be conjugal in nature seemed to her to come out of left field. She all but said, "Where did you get that idea?"

Later, after she'd heard more and had a chance to reflect and form an opinion about it, her doubts got stronger: 

I am inclined to think it is false to extend that identification further to every other [i.e. other than offering the Eucharist] way a priest relates to the non-ordained. It’s actually a form of clericalism to make too close an analogy between the conjugal relationship of Christ to the Church and a pastor to the congregation!

So, realizing that I can't take my audience's agreement with this premise for granted, I've been extra alert to evidence in my reading that I'm not making it up; it really is, theologically speaking, the truth about the priesthood.

I find it implicitly given everywhere. The fact of priestly celibacy, for instance, seems to me practically dispositive in establishing the nuptial meaning of the priest's gift-of-self to the Church. I find it constantly suggested in the language and imagery used by magisterial documents when they speak of the priesthood. But today I came across the most direct articulation of the point I have seen to date. It's from a 1992 Letter to Priests by John Paul II: [my bold]

Christ's gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride, as the sacred texts often suggest...

Hence Christ stands "before" the Church and "nourishes and cherishes her" (Eph. 5 :29), giving his life for her. The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church. Of course, he will always remain a member of the community as a believer alongside his other brothers and sisters who have been called by the Spirit, but in virtue of his configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd, the priest stands in this spousal relationship with regard to the community... In his spiritual life, therefore, he is called to live out Christ's spousal love toward the Church, his bride. Therefore, the priest's life ought to radiate this spousal character, which demands that he be a witness to Christ's spousal love and thus be capable of loving people with a heart which is new, generous and pure...

Another premise of my thesis is that the conjugal mystery between priest and laity is lived communally, not individually. That is, the pastor, whose priesthood is a corporate reality exercised under the bishop, is wedded to his congregation as a corporate subject, not to its individual members.

But that's a point to be developed in another place.