Can Women Sing with a Bass Voice?
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Catholic News Agency
June 1, 2016
Our Holy Father has appointed a commission to examine whether or not women should be granted the diaconate. The question I raise is: Is it truly necessary? Should we not be guided by Genesis and the tradition of the Church?
The first Biblical book gives us all the information we need: God created Adam first, his body being made from the slime of the earth; but man—being a person—is made for communion, and none of the animals created could fulfill this mission. God therefore decided to create another person who fully shared Adam’s dignity, and, like him, was made in His image and likeness. Her body, however, is taken from the body of a person, therefore giving it a special dignity. When Adam woke up from the sleep that God had put on him and saw Eve for the first time, his response was enchantment: he immediately perceived that she fully shared his dignity and that she was created to complement him, and therefore enrich him: “He created them male and female” (Gen. 5:2).
Let us think for an instant about the word: complement. It clearly indicates that there was something missing in the person complemented. Masculinity, with all its virtues and beauty, was in need of another being possessing the same identical metaphysical dignity both being persons—and one cannot be more or less person—but having certain perfections meant to bring to full fruition the noble qualities that his masculinity had given him. Human nature is not Adam without Eve, and not Eve without Adam; both are necessary for they essentially belong together. This is what Adam immediately perceived. Metaphysical equality, however, does not mean identity—a confusion easily made today in an age of confusion. Man is not meant to be a woman; women are not meant to be men. But, both together sing a noble duet celebrating the greatness of their Creator. This is luminous and metaphysically convincing. The divine message was clear: being different, they had different roles to play, and there was an implicit warning that to try to exchange these roles would have very grave consequences. Man is clearly meant to be a protector and called to action; woman is more mysterious, more secret, and for this reason is called to veiling herself. The male was to sing the bass; the female, the soprano: the arbitrary exchange of tones would inevitably create a cacophony. The role of Adam was to be manly; the one of Eve to live the beautiful mission of femininity.
Then came the tragedy of original sin: the gravity of which was such that it ruptured not only the beautiful harmony existing between God and his creatures, but also the harmonious music played by our first parents before the fall. The beautiful role played by Eve was now—thanks to diabolical chemistry—changed into the one of a temptress. Respectful enchantment on the male side degenerated into the “irresistible” attraction of an overwhelming pleasure. Lust, until then unknown to Adam, was from this tragic moment transformed into a deadly trap into which most males, with alas few exceptions, were going to fall. Tolstoy, who often fell victim of this temptation, accused the peasant girl that he had abused to have seduced him. Of course, he claimed, he was her victim. Following Adam who made Eve responsible for his fall, this famous writer duplicated the first’s excuse. She was made responsible for his sins, and it was therefore legitimate that from this moment on she was looked down upon as a threat, a danger, and therefore as “inferior.” This conviction is the psychological excuse that many males will use to justify their “superiority,” which to them is so obvious that it does not need to be proven. Love had been transformed into lust. This moral “inferiority” of the fair sex was inevitably going to lead to a metaphysical inferiority—exploited by Simone de Beauvoir in her brilliantly perverse book, The Second Sex. Those who fall into the traps of this book will draw the conclusion that in order for women to equal men, that is equal with the strong and “nobly productive” sex, they must wage war on the cause of this degradation, namely maternity. It is high time that women should liberate themselves from the unbearable burden put on the female body with its menstrual periods, the threat of pregnancy, the pains of childbirth, and the time consuming act of breast-feeding. They should be given full control over their body, and have a holy right to decide whether or not they will choose pregnancy: any means enabling them to favor this free decision should be welcome—including abortion. To give birth, which, from the beginning, has been recognized to be a blessing, is, according to the great friend of Jean Paul Sartre, done better and more efficiently by rabbits and hens.
Only willingly blind men can fail to perceive that if the Serpent achieved a victory over Eve—whom he chose as his target, knowing her powerful influence upon the so-called strong sex—he is now repeating the same tactic: he aims his arrows at Eve because there is a war between him and the woman: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel”” (Gen. 3:15). Having achieved victory once, he hopes to defeat her once again by his attacks on life and on motherhood. He was a murderer from the beginning, and hating life, his hatred is inevitably directed toward “the mother of the living” as Adam called Eve when he saw her. But God, who never abandons his sinful creatures, had given the world a woman, tota pulchra (completely beautiful)—who humbly accepted the incredible dignity offered her: to be the mother of the Savior, and by her “fiat” guaranteed the ultimate victory of the woman over the evil one. How right is St. Bernard in telling us how the Serpent centers his hatred on Mary and in some mysterious way fears her more than God himself (Gueranger, The Liturgical Year Time After Pentecost V, 205). How humiliating it is for him to be defeated by “the second sex.”
Now we are in the right metaphysical position to face the question raised at the beginning of this essay: Should women be granted the diaconate? It is only by contemplating Mary that we shall find the “Catholic” answer. What is her message? Her humility manifested when she was greeted as full of grace, overwhelmed and trembling with reverence: a magnificent expression of one of the key perfections of femininity—receptivity to the angel Gabriel’s message overwhelmed her. She will conceive a son…She is amazed: “How shall this be done, because I know not a man?” (Lk. 1:34). But then comes God messenger’s reassuring answer that she will be covered by the Holy Spirit. Her sublime answer will give us a key to understanding the mission of women in the Church: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy Word” (Lk. 1:38).
The blessed one joyfully acknowledges that to serve is to reign; these golden words are immediately followed by the words that we should all utter every day: “be it done to me according to Thy Word.” It is not doing that should be given priority: it is the grateful acceptance to be fecundated.
Great as Aristotle was, he tacitly made a dreadful confusion in claiming that the male is superior to the female because he is active; she is only passive. Granting that activity is “superior” to passivity, what he overlooks is that there is an abyss between passivity and receptivity: openness to fecundation. This is the glory of woman: holy receptivity. In the light of faith, it is clearly “superior” to activity because acknowledging that we are poor creatures, totally dependent upon the Creator, are called to joyfully welcome this receptivity, which is a key to holiness. Why is it that women are called the “pious sex,” if not because it is much easier for them to beg for help and accept to receive it with a joyful, “Thank you”? Why do nurses tell one that female patients are easier than male patients, often raging that they have for some time lost their independence? “I can do it by myself; I do not need help.”
Once we perceive this luminous (and for this reason, blinding) truth we find an answer to our original question: should women partake of the diaconate given to men? A positive response is, I believe, based on the erroneous premise that “doing”; “acting”; “producing”; “being in the limelight”; are more important than silence and contemplation. This craving is given additional attraction today because of television: to be seen on the big screen is, to some people, the greatest of their wishes. A witty French cynic might be tempted to write today: “Descartes wrote: ‘I think therefore I am.’ Today he would wisely replace these famous words with: ‘I am on television: therefore I am.’” Some might be tempted to sell themselves to be seen by millions of people. Personally, I find it difficult to understand the craving that many women have to be lectors or altar girls. One should go to Church to adore and to be receptive to the unfathomable gift of the Holy Sacrifice. Why should “acting” bring us closer to God than silent adoration? Would St. Therese of Lisieux regret the fact that her life in a little-known convent in a small French town, prevented her from being “known the world over”? Now she is, but certainly never aimed at being famous. The worst popes—and some of them were plainly unworthy—were those playing political games to have a tiara on their heads. The greatest—let us think of Pius X—are those who accept the crushing burden of the Papacy sub cruce.
One of the grave problems affecting our society is that we have lost the sense for the hierarchy of values: we place action over contemplation, we place authority over obedience, we place accomplishments over loving submission. We should do the reverse: place obedience over commanding; contemplation over action; obscurity over fame. How beautiful is St. Benedict’s holy rule which he keeps reminding the abbot: one day when he appears before the throne of God, he will be asked whether he has truly used the authority as a service to the souls of his spiritual sons. Has he been more concerned to be loved than to command? Has he viewed being an abbot as a burden which is so heavy that he needs God’s help to carry? Reading these words, how could possibly a monk worthy of this name, wish to be elected abbot?
It is high time for women to awake from the dangerous spiritual slumber that secularistic ideas, like a dangerous drug, has made them lose view of the beauty and greatness of their mission so crucial to the Church. Let us recall the words of Christ to Martha: “Thou art careful and art troubled about many things: but one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10: 41-42).
God has made it clear from the beginning that the roles He assigned to men and women were different and for this very reason were complementary. One of the tricks that the evil one has now devised is to convince some women that they are looked down upon because they only perform “low rank” female duties. The “great things” have been accomplished by males; from the beginning, they have been the leaders, the creators, the great thinkers, the great scientists, the great architects, the great military leaders. They have contributed to what Simone de Beauvoir called the “wheel of progress.” But de Beauvoir fails to mention her “excuse” being that having left the Church as a teenager, she chose blindness, and inevitably not only rejects God’s holy teaching, but fights against it. She chooses to forget that one day the world will be annihilated: all male accomplishments, admirable as some were, will be reduced to dust and ashes…but every single child to whom a woman has given birth, having been given an immortal soul, will live forever.
It is worth remarking that some “great” thinkers whose thoughts have done an incalculable amount of harm can, when absent minded, make very pertinent points. It was Nietzsche—no friend of mine—who wrote that before the French Revolution women had much less authority than now, but had a lot more influence. How profound to perceive that authority can command actions; but influence can transform persons. This is a crushing superiority.
Always again, we should meditate upon the fact that Mary—the most perfect of all creatures including angels, whose queen she is—gave birth to the Savior. This is the greatest, the most overwhelming honor ever granted to a human being, and this Savior is the one and only Priest. For all priests when entering the sanctuary should remember with a trembling heart that they act in persona Christi. This is why when they utter the words of consecration, “their hands should tremble.” Mary—a woman—has the glorious title of mother of the only Priest. The woman’s greatest dignity is not to be a deacon, but to be a mother to a priest. In the light of this, why should she battle to become a deacon?
We should beware of any decision made which aims at blurring the line separating masculinity from femininity. This caveat should be written in golden letters. Let me repeat, emphatically; the war going on today is a devilish war against motherhood: this is best proven by the fact that women are challenged to become more like men. Men do not duplicate by wishing to be more like women: to give birth does not appeal to them. Mary, in accepting to be fecundated by the Holy Spirit and conceive the Savior, was in this moment, fully accepting to partake of His Passion. No creature has shared the cross of her Son as much as she has. She duplicated in her heart the agonizing pains of her beloved Son; she fully accepted to pay the price for the honor to become the mother of the only Priest: Christ. To accept to be the mother of a priest necessarily excludes the possibility of being a priest oneself. This is why the Church does not allow women to receive this magnificent sacrament.
One thing cannot be denied: a full, joyful acceptance of the gender God has chosen for us brings with it an amazing reward; it gives us a key to the mystery of the other sex. This is why Mary was the blessed one who understood St. Joseph best, and vice versa. This explains the sublime friendships which have blossomed through the centuries between great saints. I have shed some humble light on this in my book: Man & Woman: A Divine Invention. May these few words be received as a holy wake up call, and make the weak sex realize “that it is a privilege to be a woman.”