Symbolism of Sexuality: Person, Ministry and Women Priests by Thomas More Newbold, C. P. from 'Women and Priesthood: Future Directions'

Symbolism of Sexuality: Person, Ministry and Women Priests

by Thomas More Newbold, C. P.

from Women and Priesthood: Future Directions, pp. 133-141.
edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

THOMAS MORE NEWBOLD, C.P., Emeritus Professor in Pastoral Theology and Psychology. He did his doctoral work in theology and psychology at L'Institut d'Etudes Médiévales d'Albert le Grand, and the University of Montreal. He has conducted workshops, retreats and special programs for religious communities of men and women in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and has served as consultant for several religious communities during the post-Vatican II period.

It would seem to be obvious that there are some things that a man— as a male—and a woman—as female—either simply cannot do, or, in terms of what is fitting and appropriate, should not do, or wisely would not try to do. But I think that common consensus would exhaust the list of such things very quickly. And present debate makes it clear that ordination of women to the priesthood would not make that consensus list. The question here is: why not?

Are there any particular or special roles and functions which are closed or should be forbidden to any human person by reason of his or her sexual anatomy? Or, more precisely: Does the sexual-anatomical fact intrinsically imply a destiny of inclusion or exclusion from any of the roles and functions that are by their very nature the possible roles and functions of a human person?

Perhaps the proverbial battle of the sexes” has raged over answers to these questions because some (and sometimes all) helpful distinctions were blotted out or blurred into the background by emotion or prejudice or both. However, calmly reflective approaches to such questions have been attempted from time to time; and not only attempted, but rather thoroughly explored and vigorously, if not always persuasively, expressed.


Wherever and whenever human sexuality has become the subject of serious study or discussion, three dominant approaches have emerged. For the sake of convenience they may be designated as: the biological, the cultural, and the symbolic. The biological is that approach to an understanding of human sexuality which focuses almost exclusively on the physical endowments and differences of human persons as male and female. Large areas and long stretches of the Judaeo-Christian tradition have been dominated by this approach; and in the 20th century, it was given a particularly vivid expression and summation in the famous (and hotly controversial) dictum of Sigmund Freud: “Anatomy is Destiny.”(1)

This approach would view the psychology of man and woman as derivative of the physical, and thus so dependent upon the physical that all areas of personal functioning are sharply and irrevocably defined— whether it be in the traditions of legal rights and obligations, social patterns and structures, or religious tasks and functions. This approach is given practical expression by that segment of our population which insists upon the essential and irreducible differences between male and female consciousness, and upon the necessity to conform attitudes and behavior to these differences.

In the Freudian version of this approach to human sexuality, the fate of women becomes nothing less than pathetic!—to say nothing of the provocations to exasperation and frustration. By proclaiming that “anatomy is destiny,” Freud derives the psychology of the feminine human being from the contours of the female body, and specifically from what the female body lacks—a phallus. The “lack,” of course, is in relation to the male human body; and thus the way is open for all the humiliating prejudices and discriminations of a male-dominated society.

In all fairness, it must be emphatically noted that not everyone in the Freudian tradition agrees with the more flagrant and negative implications of the Freudian dictum: “anatomy is destiny.” Erik Erikson, for instance, is much more positive. He shifts the emphasis from what is missing to what is present: a productive inner potential in “a productive inner-bodily space”; and his interpretation is one that challenges the Freudian feminine psychology on all its major declarations and contentions. Erikson summarizes his views as turning

. . . from the loss of an external organ to a sense of vital inner potential; from a hateful contempt of the mother to a solidarity with her and other women; from a ‘passive’ renunciation of male activity to the purposeful and competent activity of one endowed with ovaries and a uterus, and from a masochistic pleasure in pain to an ability to stand (and to understand) pain as a meaningful aspect of human experience in general, and of the feminine role in particular.(2)

However, even in Erikson’s positive and persuasive account one senses the felt need to defend women against Freudian attack, and the implication that the feminine still requires defense and justification.


We turn now from the biological to the cultural approach for understanding human sexuality. Here we discover a decisive change of emphasis. Such representative figures of this approach as Karen Homey and Margaret Mead derive their psychology of human sexuality from the shaping influences of cultural traditions rather than from the determinism of biological structures and endowments. In this view, the assertion is made that social custom and habit have molded, if not entirely created, the psychological propensities of men and women, and that the conditions of society define and determine the masculine and feminine. The primacy of biological facts is replaced by the primacy of sociological facts.(3)

Also, in the literature of this approach to human sexuality there is (understandably and often justifiably) an element of vigorous protest against the traditionally subordinate position of women. It is argued that this socially-imposed position has created in woman a psychology of dependance and passivity which are only learned responses and not intrinsic traits of the feminine. It is also argued that, therefore, such traits can be changed if our culture changes.

In recent years the more radical implications of this cultural approach have been given very explicit rhetorical and social expression. Among the more militant women’s groups, the claim is often made that there is no real difference between men and women, only the differences created and imposed by unjust male cultural standards. In practical terms this view is represented by those who attempt to obliterate the cultural and sociological differences between masculine and feminine functioning in the workaday world.


There is still another approach—the symbolic—which offers (I believe) particular hope. It effectively advances our search for answers not only to our initial questions about sexuality but also to the present controversy about ordination of women to an office held exclusively by men up till now. There are two principal reasons for this progress. The first would be that this symbolic approach does not come on the scene as just another, and competing, alternative to the biological and cultural approaches. It does serve, however, as a corrective for the rigid restrictions of the biological approach and for the excessive claims of the cultural approach. The biological approach tends to reduce all differences between men and women to anatomical endowment and the derived possibility of male/female functions. The consequence is a rigid dichotomy that often leads to (and often has led to) sexual discrimination. In contrast, this symbolic approach, while recognizing the difference between being male and being female, does not restrict personal role and function to sexual-anatomical differences.

In like manner the symbolism of sexuality provides a corrective to the cultural approach. The culturists tend to look upon any admission of difference as discrimination, and would therefore tend to deny all differences, or at least reduce all differences to cultural forces and pressures. The symbolic approach, while admitting the fact of cultural influences, makes any exaggerated claims unnecessary. It does so by recognizing, as we shall see, the psychic component of masculine/feminine contrasexuality as intrinsic to every human person. The second reason for the special hope placed in the symbolic approach is that it adds an essential dimension to our understanding and appreciation not only of human sexuality specifically but also of the human person generally, whether that person be male or female.

The few reflections offered here on the symbolic approach to human sexuality will depend almost exclusively on the contributions of Carl Gustav Jung and those who work in his tradition.(4) It is true that nowhere in Jung’s writings will one find a formal and full-scale development of the symbolic approach. Yet, in the several passing comments and many random remarks which Jung makes one can find the kind of profound suggestions and original insights that open the way for such a development.

The most important of these suggestive insights is that which Jung often referred to as the “contrasexuality” of each human person.(5) By this he meant that the masculine is not the exclusive concern and reserve of the male, just as the feminine is not the exclusive concern and reserve of the male; but that both masculine and feminine are central, shaping factors in both sexes. Sex is of the body, since being male or being female is an anatomical fact. At the same time, sex and gender are not identical. Gender refers to attitudes and modes of behavior that are designated as masculine and feminine; and it is a familiar fact that “masculine” and “feminine” qualities coexist in each sex. Most people correspond in gender to their sexual makeup—appearing female and feminine, or male and masculine. What is not so apparent, but just as factual, is the “contrasexual” aspect of every human person. This is the psychological component which does not correspond to the individual’s anatomical sex—namely, the masculine element in woman and the feminine element in man.

Thus, an adequate understanding and appreciation of the nature of human personhood, whether male or female, involves recognition of both the anatomical fact of being male or being female, and the contrasexual fact of masculine-feminine components in the human psyche of each person.


Jung found it necessary to describe this twofold recognition symbolically, because the masculine and feminine in any man or woman is a psychic as well as a sexual and a cultural determinant of human being. Neither masculinity nor femininity can be known directly as a thing in itself but only indirectly as encountered in images, actions, and emotional responses.(6) They are best described as two modalities of being oneself as a person, and of giving oneself to the world and others. In Jung’s terms, the masculine and feminine are “archetypal” principles and patterns of the human psyche whose polarity and complementarily will find expression in this interaction of both sexes and in the interaction within any individual person of the conscious ego with the masculine/feminine elements of his or her personal self.

Dr. June Singer describes some contemporary manifestations of this symbolic understanding of the human person. She writes:

Today . . . the average woman has the opportunity to unite with her inner masculine potential in a far less restricted way than ever before. More and more women are moving away from full-time housemaking and are assuming some of the functions and modes reserved to men in the past. Women are developing business and professional skills and contributing to the economic support of their families. And many men are taking up life styles formerly denied them for reasons of convention, or economic necessity. The integration of the opposites (i.e., of the masculine/feminine psychic components) can proceed in both directions.(7)

Hence, it is not surprising to find a growing number of people—both men and women—intent upon achieving (in symbolic terms) as complete an integration of the masculine and feminine as possible. And, involved in this intent, is the effort to educate people away from stereotyped sex attitudes by providing equal opportunity and responsibility for both sexes in all areas of personal role and function.

An old word is now beginning to be used as a new name for this understanding of the human person, and for the socio-cultural phenomena which flow from it. The word is: “ANDROGYNY.” A consultation of most dictionaries will not help much. Most dictionaries propagate the inadequate, distorted notion of androgyny as referring to some kind of hemaphroditic hybrid! On the contrary, as Dr. June Singer remarks, androgyny is “a fundamental principle that has existed for so long that it may be said to be inherent in the nature of the human organism. Not reactive, but intrinsic, is the principle of androgyny.”(8)

In a scholarly study of some aspects of androgyny in literature, Carolyn G. Heilbrun defines androgyny as a condition in which the personalities of the sexes are not rigidly defined. She further describes it as a movement away from sexual polarization (not polarity) and from the arbitrary restrictions of gender stereotypes. Androgyny would mean a world in which individual roles and modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen—the implication being that the determining factors in any person’s life-choices and behaviors should stem more from that person’s inner structure as a human person, and not exclusively or primarily from anatomical endowments and societal expectations.(9)

Thus, androgyny is neither a novelty nor an anomaly, but the modality of being a person for any human being—male or female. It need not become a cultural fad that is being used as an excuse for abrogating traditional values. It is, rather, a human fact which demands full recognition, clear understanding, and active implementation.


Such considerations give both helpful clarification and normative direction when we turn our attention to the specific question of the ordination of women to the ministry of priesthood. In general, it becomes clear that the question of women’s ordination is not a question of extending some kind of male franchise to women, but rather a cultural and ecclesial problem of recognizing a matter of human fact.

There are several reasons for this; the first being that the symbolism of human sexuality cannot be reduced to the confining and crippling dimensions of the Freudian dictum: “Anatomy is destiny.” The anatomical “femaleness” of women, as well as the anatomical “maleness” of men, does not of itself involve the destiny of exclusion from symbolic human actions and functions. And since the ministerial priesthood is such an action or function, the only reason for the exclusion of either men or women would be the factual one of a normative tradition.(10)

Moreover, any argumentation for an exclusively male priesthood that is based on the principle of “natural resemblance” will be inadequate in the light of the symbolic approach to an understanding of human sexuality. It is easy, of course, to make flippant comments about the argument from “natural resemblance” as it appears in the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.(11) Almost anything convenient to negative preconceptions can be read into the argument as it stands. It is much more to the point, however, to probe the implications of “natural symbol” and the modes of its function.(12)

It is not the purpose of this chapter to investigate “natural symbol” but one of the established conclusions reached by those who have done so may be stated here as relevant to the present purpose. It is this: the “natural resemblance” of a “natural symbol” does not require that the symbolic person or function or object be a literal copy of the person, function or object symbolized.(13) As Jung has pointed out, the symbolic manifestation or expression of an archetype loses both vigor and viability, meaning and vitality if it becomes a stereotype.(14) To understand the “natural resemblance” of “natural symbol” in this reduced sense would impoverish its meaning and threaten its viability, making it a stereotype that fails to represent the full range of both meaning and possibility. Thus, it is certainly a fact, as the Declaration asserts,(15) that Christ the Lord, in His male Personhood, is the archetypal symbol of priesthood; but to conclude that this fact requires an exclusively male priesthood is stereotypical reductionism (a stereotype) when considered in the context of the symbolism of human sexuality and personhood.

Before all else, a man is a male PERSON and a woman is a female PERSON. This means that both men and women have always in common that capacity for full humanness and for the full range of symbolic action and function that the primacy of personhood involves. The value and validity of the symbolic approach to human sexuality lies precisely in this: that it never denies the anatomical destiny of being male and female, but at the same time it never loses sight of the primacy and meaning of PERSONHOOD in both men and women. To cherish that value and respect that validity require, therefore, that the symbolism of sexuality be applied to ministerial status and functions, not within the limited sexual-anatomical perspective but within the larger and more adequate context of the personal.

The strength of the Declaration, it seems to me, lies in its forthright affirmation of the validity of the symbolic approach; its weakness lies in drawing a conclusion based on the assumptions about human sexuality that are proper to the biological and cultural approaches only. This leaves the Declaration open to the accusation of being a “sexist document,” and one that emphasizes “sexuality over humanity.”(16) While neither of these accusations seem to me to be a full and fair assessment of the INTENTION of the Declaration, both have some basis in the tone and text of the document. For while the Declaration recognizes the irreplaceable contribution of women to the ministry of the Church, and also encourages a more extensive involvement by them in ministry,(17) it still maintains an unchanged position in the face of the crucial question: Can women be ordained to the ministry of priesthood? It seems to me that, granted the document’s assumptions relative to the extent and validity of the symbolism of sexuality, this position is understandable; but a full acceptance of the symbolic approach to human sexuality would not see the conclusion as defensible.

Such acceptance would open the way to a more comprehensive understanding and deeper appreciation of the roles and functions that are appropriate, fitting, and possible for the total human person, whether made or female. And in the context of such understanding it would seem that ministerial priesthood, while not the “right” of any individual,(18) could justly be designated an appropriate, fitting, and possible function for any mature, properly prepared, and ecclesially summoned human person—whether man or woman.


“A rebirth of vital religious symbolism, in my opinion, may result from recovery of the feminine element both in individual experience and in the religious symbols themselves. Because the feminine element is by and large de-emphasized in religious symbolism, the fullness of human experience is not represented.”(19) These words by Ann Belford Ulanov speak directly to the heart of the problem. And it is heartening to hear more than just an echo of such a statement from some contemporary theologians. I shall quote but one instance here:

. . . Is it a question of ‘ordaining women to the priesthood’ or should we be seeking new, as yet unexplored ways to symbolize the relation between God and people?

I raise this question because there can be little doubt that our theological imaginations (as well as our vocabulary) have been dominated by male imagery. We have paid little attention to what might be called the femininity of God, the motherhood of God . . . I mention this, not in order to be relevant and avante-garde, but because our theological imagery really does affect the way we think and the way we perceive the world. Earlier in this century Ludwig Wittgenstein reminded us strongly to what degree our language and our imagery shape our world. Even from a purely psychological point of view the masculine symbols of God and His activity have colored our understanding of God as an aggressive, dominating partner in the human enterprise.

Perhaps, then, the call to recognize the role of women in ministry is part of a larger, deeper call to broaden our understanding of who God is. This is not just a matter of extending the ordination franchise to women, but of letting our vision of God expand beyond the familiar masculine images. Seen in this light, the agitation for women in ministry is not simply a pastoral strategy for improving the Church’s function in the modern day, but a serious call to continuing conversion. (20)

This expresses very well the deeper need and the more inclusive goal which together precipitate the “question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.” But I do not think that need will be satisfied or that goal achieved unless and until a prediction made years ago by Rainer Maria Rilke is realized. Speaking from his own experience and perception of the changing status and place of women in our culture, Rilke made this confident assertion: “. . . someday there will be girls and women whose names will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being.”(21) In more direct language, this is a way of saying that the time will come in our culture when female anatomy will no longer be a destiny of exclusion from personal roles and function, whether they be secular or religious.

When and if Rilke’s prediction is realized as cultural fact, the admission of women to the ministry of priesthood would cease to be a controversial issue and could become an accepted possibility. In which case, the ordination of women need not be so far down the road of historical possibility as we sometimes think; even though it may not be, as many would hope, just around the corner.


1. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans, James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1965) esp. 124-127, and 135.

2. Erik Erikson, "Inner and Outer Space: Reflections on Womanhood,'' The Women in America, ed. Robert Jay Lifton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1965) 13.

3. For Karen Homey, cf. especially, Feminine Psychology (New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1967), passim. For Margaret Mead, cf. Male and Female: a Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (New York: W. Morrow, 1949)

4. As a single reference which brings together the Jungian material on the feminine in a readable and competently critical way, I suggest the book by Ann Belford Ulanov The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and in Christian Theology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971).

5. Cf., C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (CW, XII, 1967) 144. See likewise the excursus in Jung, Mysterium Conjunctionis (CW, XIV, 1963) 89ff.

6. Cf., C. G. Jung's essay, "Woman in Europe," in Civilization in Transition (CW, X, 1964) passim; and see also the fine chapter by Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, M.D., "An Examination of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in terms of the Symbolism of the Eucharist," Women and Orders, ed. Robert J. Heyer (New York: Paulist Press 1974) 26-29.

7. June Singer, "The Age of Androgony," in Quadrant, 8 (No. 2; Winter 1975) 80.

8. June Singer, Androgony (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976) preface, viii.

9. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Towards Androgony: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973) passim.

10. Treatment of this important issue is not within the scope of this chapter but the issue is addressed at length by Gilbert Ostdiek in ch 6 of this book.

11.Cf., Section 5, par. 25-33.

12. Cf., the study by Mary Douglas Natural Symbols (New York: Division Books, 1970) passim.

13. Cf., Mary Douglas, op. cit., preface; and see also chapter 10. Likewise, A. N. Whitehead, Symbolism (New York: Macmillan Co., Capricorn Books, 1959) chapters 1, 5 and 10. Also, Louis Dupre, The Other Dimension (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972) ch 4. In ch 2, sec III of this book Carroll Stuhlmueller pointed out how a single Old Testament symbol could contain clashing components and how dramatic developments took place in the long history of a single period.

14. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (COO, XII, 1967) Par 12. And, for a fuller study of Jung's meaning, cf. Charles B. Hanna, The Face of the Deep (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967) esp. chapters 2 and 5.

15. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 27-32.

16.Cf., The Christian Century (March 16 1977) 256- 258.

17. See the Declaration’s introductory statement, par. 1-5.

18. Declaration, Sec. 6, par. 36 38.

19. Ann Belford Ulanov, op. cit., 109.

20. Quoted from an unpublished presentation given by Rev. Nathan Mitchell, O.S.B., Assistant Professor of Theology in the St. Meinrad School of Theology, at the 5th Annual Presbyteral Meeting sponsored by the Presbyteral Senate of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Dec. 1, 1976.

21. Quoted in Ann Belford Ulanov, op. cit., 137.

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