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Vol. 2, No. 11, November 2006

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"The Theology of Sacrifice and the Non-Ordination of Women"

Mary T. Condren Th.D.
Director, Institute for Feminism and Religion
Research Associate, Gender and Women's Studies, Trinity College
Dublin, Ireland

This article was originally published in
Concilium: the Non-Ordination of Women and the Politics of Power.
ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Hermann Haring,
Volume 3, (London: S.C.M. Press, 1999), pp. 50-57.

Reprinted with permission

Editor's Note: The invited article this month is "The Theology of Sacrifice and the Non-Ordination of Women", by Mary T. Condren. It is an honor for this newsletter to reprint an article by such a distinguished scholar. It is as relevant today, perhaps even more so, than when it was written ten years ago. The article is a theological reflection on the following text:

"When he was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When he heard this he replied, "It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words, "What I want is mercy, not sacrifice." And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners." Matthew 9:13.

Jesus had learned this teaching from the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6). Condren's article applies the teaching to the refusal to ordain women by churches in which a one dimensional theology of sacrificial atonement prevails. In conjunction with this article, see also the introduction to The Non-Ordination of Women and the Politics of Power, by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Hermann Häring, Concilium, Volume 3, 1999.

"The Theology of Sacrifice and the Non-Ordination of Women"

Mary T. Condren Th.D.

"When he was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When he heard this he replied, "It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words, "What I want is mercy, not sacrifice." And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners." Matthew 9:13.

As a woman born into the Roman Catholic tradition I entertained for many years the notion that I was called to priesthood. Together with many others I campaigned on behalf of this vocation thinking it would only be a matter of time before the Vatican recognized its own logical inconsistencies, not to mention what it might have been missing by excluding women like myself.

The Vatican's "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood," issued in 1976, put an end to those notions. I had not expected that women would be admitted to ordination, but nothing in my theological education had prepared me for the sheer levels of what I considered to be theological dishonesty and the lengths to which the writers had been prepared to go to exclude women from the central rites of Roman Catholicism. As prominent theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, argued at the time, the Vatican was "risking heresy" in its attempts to exclude women from ordination. I realised then that it was not logic, but power, that was at stake, and that no amount of exegesis, historical analysis, or the most brilliant feminist theology, would make a difference. From that moment I set out to explore, not the explicit theological justifications given for the exclusion of women from ordination, but the deep seated issues of power and authority; the mythologies, theologies and the underlying assumptions that undergirded their assumptions.

In particular, I asked, what is it about the logic, institutions, and theologies of sacrifice that appear to be so inimical to the interests of women? In more recent years, my concern with sacrifice has developed with the aid of feminist theory, especially that of French feminism, destined to have profound effects on the way we do theology today.

Why Mercy?

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” was the consistent cry of the prophets against the petrified tired old logic of the reigning religious leaders in the time of the early Hebrews and of Jesus. 1 The Hebrew prophets uttered these words when the priestly religious leaders thought they could, through their efficient sacrificing, control the works or word of Yahweh. Jesus uttered these words when the Pharisees accused him of breaking the Sabbath to feed his disciples. 2

Both Jesus and the prophets were saying that behind the formal observances that constitute religious life must lie a deeper logic: that of mercy and that the logic of mercy transcends the immediate needs or exigencies of what churchmen might consider to be good religious order. 3

The conflict between prophecy and order, prophets and priests is longstanding. In the history of Western religion, this dispute has been resolved at the expense of the prophets. Once respected members of religious structures, prophets are now only recognized and sanitized after their deaths by means of such institutions and practices as canonization. Notwithstanding the words of its founder, in Christianity, sacrifice—its logic, practices, theology, and political effects—and not mercy, has been the dominant force pervading its theology, liturgical practice, and ethical positions, shaping the very identity of the Christian churches. Disputes over who can and cannot perform sacrifice, and the theologies underpinning such positions, were at the heart of the Reformations. Women in all those major denominations, whose theologies and liturgical practices are underpinned by sacrifice, are forbidden ordination.

It is no accident, therefore, that although major church battles have been fought over the issue of sacrifice, the question of mercy is left largely ignored. Sacrifice enjoys an uncritical status in religious and political discourse, a status that now needs to be fundamentally challenged if a theology of mercy is to be developed. In this article I will attempt to address the following questions: What is sacrifice? What are its practices? What are its effects? Why is it so inimical to mercy? What do we need to do if we are to obey the prophetic injunction and put mercy and not sacrifice at the heart of the theological and spiritual enterprise?

Defining Sacrifice

One of the problems about sacrifice is the lack of clarity as to a definition. St. Augustine, one of the first to attempt to define sacrifice, defined true sacrifice as follows: "verum sacrificium est omne opus quo agitur ut sancta societate inhaereamus Deo, relatum scilicet ad illum finem boni quo veraciter beati esse possimus." St. Augustine, City of God X.6.

Thus a true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed...For though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing, as those who called it sacrifice meant to indicate. 4

In the critical notes to this edition of Augustine the word sacrifice is defined as "a sacred action." But this definition involves us in a circular process and begs the question as to interpretation. As the theorist of religion, Roger Caillois, has said of the sacred:

"Basically, with regard to the sacred in general, the only thing that can be validly asserted is contained in the very definition of the term—that it is opposed to the profane. As soon as one attempts to specify the nature and conditions of this opposition, one comes up against serious obstacles." 5 Nancy Jay, in her book, Throughout Your Generation Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity provides a history of attempts to "define" sacrifice (Chapter 8). But Jay ultimately concludes that:

"Constructing an objective criterion to identify "sacrifice" invariantly across different traditions would be more distorting than it would be clarifying. To bring "sacrifice" under our control as a perfectly defined object of analysis, to cut out and classify its constituent elements, is more like doing sacrifice than understanding it ... The victim has indeed been brought under a kind of analytic control, but in the process it has indeed been killed." 6

The interpretation of the phenomenon of "sacrifice" or words such as "sacred" or "profane" is, therefore, no simple matter. The word "sacrifice" is used by many writers as though it had a common referent, or that there was agreement as to the meaning. The apparent continuity of the word conceals radical changes in the intended content, and definitions of sacrifice are often circular, contextual, or self-serving. What is needed, therefore, is not a definite statement as to what sacrifice is in any kind of ontological sense, as much as a political exploration of the phenomenon. As Nancy Jay argues, a vital part of a sacrificial act is the post-sacrificial politics of interpretation. 7

Happily, this coincides with one of the most fundamental tenets of feminist liberation theology: that it should be based on praxis, the union of theory and action. In other words, liberation theology asks not only about definitions, but also about effects. Or as feminist theologian, Sheila Devaney, has argued: "Not an ontology of truth, but a politics of truth is what is demanded today." 8

Indeed, the definition is intimately tied up with effects. Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mör expressed it very well when they wrote: "We do not know if a god is a true or a false god until we see what kind of world has been created in that god’s name". 9 As we face into a new millennium we have ample evidence of the effects of sacrificial theologies.

Happily, it is much easier to find out some of the things that sacrifice does than it is to find out what it is. Sacrifice does several things and in the limited time available here it will only be possible to touch on the question. Sacrifice creates the other--demons or scapegoats; it sacralizes horror; it serves as a tool of social and religious control; it creates new origins; it resists self-awareness, the essence of mercy; and it attempts to control grace. Ultimately, sacrificial logic and practices represent attempts to limit, control, or otherwise jeopardize the work of Godself—the work of mercy.

Creating Demons

An old Celtic text says that sacrifice is responsible for rescuing the earth from the demons. 10 In other words, the work of sacrifice is one of separation, the pure from the impure, the profane from the sacred. But who defines which is which, and according to what criteria? Are these predetermined or self-evident categories, or are there issues of power at stake?

While today we hardly talk about creating demons, the task of creating the Other goes on unabated: travellers, political refugees, homosexuals, blacks, or indeed anyone who represents difference—anyone who challenges the dominant status quo, as defined by those in power, become Other to the powerful religious or political establishment.

We not only define the other; we also create the other in order to assert our own moral, political, or religious superiority. Difference is essential to this enterprise. Colonial powers, for instance, justified their colonial efforts to “civilize” the natives by demonising them, or their religious practices. For English colonisers, the Irish were often caricatured as monkeys, way down on the scale of human evolution, and hence in need of the salvation offered by English culture and civilization.

Theorist René Girard points out that it is not real difference that is threatening to the established order. What is much more threatening is difference that exposes the precariousness of identity. For instance, the Pope seldom issues encyclicals against the ordination of monkeys. But the ordination of women is conceivable and women must, therefore, be kept at bay by regularly issuing injunctions, not only against ordination, but also against even the discussion of women’s ordination.

Homosexuals challenge the precarious identity of heterosexuals. Men or women who are unsure about their masculinity or femininity are the ones most likely to persecute homosexuals. The most frightening difference, therefore, is that which is so close to the norm as to threaten its very being.

Foreigners, strangers, migrant refugees, all make ideal victims. Essentially, however, the victim serves to reinforce the boundaries of the dominant group. “Fallen women”, Magdalenes, serve to remind women of the awful fate that awaits them should they challenge or ignore the requirements of patriarchal marriage. Religious women, on the other hand, ideally serve to re-inforce the norms and boundaries of the dominant group. Those who do not are very quickly suppressed.

In sacrificial logic, one’s identity must be established at someone else’s expense. Women and homosexuals are obvious targets, but the process of demonisation takes place at many other levels whenever we are threatened by the possibility of change, losing status, privilege, or our place in the sacrificially created hierarchy.

Sacrificial logic leads to a perpetual state of war against the Other. As Nietzsche formulated the problem in relation to war:" Ye say it is the good cause that halloweth every war? I say unto you: it is the good war that halloweth every cause." 11 In other words, sacrificial logic needs constantly to create the Other in order to assert its own superiority.

Politics of Exclusion

The impetus to make Others rests in some fundamental psychic and social processes, the full discussion of which is beyond us here. Suffice to say that the Other usually represents some part of ourselves that we need to repudiate, vilify, and reject as a condition of consciousness itself.

In Jungian terms, it is our Shadow, the negative side of ourselves that, nevertheless, stays with us and haunts us as we go about our daily business. Having ostensibly repudiated it in ourselves, we recognise it in others and continue to persecute it there, lest it re-infect the purity of our social or psychic order. In sacrificial logic it is a simple matter to turn the "Other" into an enemy; the one who must be kept at bay so that we can continue to believe in the myth of our own purity or goodness.

Once demons or Others have been created, sacrifice acts to ensure that they are excluded from social or religious Order. Those who disobey the laws, especially the laws governing sexual behaviour, are usually excluded from communion. They are defined as sinners: they are unworthy to participate in the rituals or partake of the sacrificial victim or whatever represents that victim, or to have access to the fruits of sacrifice whether this be Holy Communion (in religious sacrifice) or political favours (in the case of political sacrifice).

Rites of purification, caste systems, represent pre-modern attempts to repudiate otherness. While these are overtly physical and dated, they have been replaced by their psychic equivalents that continue to run rampant. We persecute difference. We create ideal selves, ideal societies, and ideal ethical systems that cannot allow of any difference.

Sacrificial theologies continue the work of sacrifice by dividing, separating, and excommunicating (in the same breath as they communicate). Sacrificial theologies and philosophies are responsible for maintaining some of the most fundamental dualisms of Western culture, and for perpetuating "sacrificial thinking". 12

At the heart of sacrificial rituals and theologies there is a scapegoat. Someone or some persons must be identified as having sinned. Once the sins of the community are projected onto that person, they can be cast out into the wilderness, leaving the community clean, pure, and morally righteous. This very act forms the core of the community’s identity. In other words, sacrificial rituals achieve the identity of a community at someone else’s expense.

Sacrifice and Gender

The work of sacrifice is the work of power: it is the work of excluding, rejecting, and vilifying those uncomfortable parts of ourselves and projecting them onto a victim. Excluding the victim from the communities, we rest content in our own self-righteousness. The work of sacrifice is the work of war: the instant solutions of the politics of aggression, and the spurious power gained by demonising the Other.

Although we cannot definitively define sacrifice, a primary factor in the ability of religions to effect relations of domination has been the mechanism of sacrifice, a gendered rite that, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, is an effective sign, one that "causes what it signifies." 13 Sacrificial rituals, in other words, are performative: that is to say, the medium is the message. The fact that women always end up on the wrong side of these divisions serves as our first clue.

Communion, according to sacrificial theology, is made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus. But communion carries as its converse, excommunion, and the tool of excommunication has been used throughout Christian history to maintain church order often at the expense of those whom the ministry of Jesus has specifically set out to include: outcasts, prostitutes, sinners, tax-collectors, or women-in-shame.

In addition, the exclusion of women from officiation ritually re-iterates and re-inforces their exclusion from other domains of religious or political practice. In most social and religious orders based on sacrifice, women are not allowed to perform sacrifice. Women are, therefore, the primordial scapegoats of the sacrificial order.

End Notes

1 "And if you had understood the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the blameless. For the Son of Man is master of the sabbath." Matthew 12:1-8

2 "What am I to do with you Ephraim? What am I to do with you, Judah? This love of yours is like a morning cloud, like the dew that quickly disappears. This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets, why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth, since what I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts." Hosea 6: 1-6

3 "When he was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When he heard this he replied, "It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words "What I want is mercy, not sacrifice," And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners." Matthew, 9:13.

4 Augustine, City of God (circa 410; New York: Random House, 1950) Book Ten, chapter six, p.309. Cf. Frances Young, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in Greek Christian Writers from the New Testament to John Chrysostom (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979). That this was one of the earliest definitions was suggested to Frances Young by Rev. Massey Sheppherd. (p.7).

5 Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred trans. Meyer Barash, (1939: Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 2nd ed. 1950), p.13.

6 Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1992), pp. xxv-xxvi.

7 Jay, Throughout Your Generations, p.10.

8 Sheila Greeve Devaney, "Problems with Feminist Theory: Historicity and the Search for Sure Foundations," in Embodied Love: Sensuality and Relationship as Feminist Values, eds. Paula M. Cooey, Sharon A. Farmer, Mary Ellen Ross, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p.84.

9 Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mör, The Great Cosmic Mother: Re-discovering the Religion of the Earth (San Francisco: Harper & row, 1987), p. 393.

10 Cf. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p.79.

11 Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, cited in Ernst Jones, "War and Individual Psychology," in Essays in Applied Psychoan-Analysis, vol. 1 (1915: London: Hogarth and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1951), p. 67.

12 Cf. Mary Condren, "Women, Religion, and Northern Ireland,” Keynote Address to Women and Religion Conference, Sept. 1992. University of Ulster, Jordanstown: Centre for Research on Women.

13 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1923) III. Q62:1. Cited in Jay, Throughout Your Generations, p.7

Some other publications by Mary Condren:

"War, Religion, Gender and Psyche: An Irish Perspective," in "Holy War and Gender: Gotteskrieg und Geschlecht," eds. Christina von Braun, Ulrike Brunotte, Gabriele Dietze, Daniela Hrzan, Gabriele Jähnert, Dagmar Pruin, Centre for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2006), pp. 143-177.

"Sexuality, Sin and Sacrifice," Interview with Andrew Lawless, Three Monkeys Online Journal, March 2006.

"Address Beliefs that Sustain Abuse," Irish Times, Rite and Reason column, October 31st 2005.

"Enough to Make Jesus Picket the Vatican," Irish Times, Rite and Reason Column, August 16th 2004.

"Doctor Nancy Dunne: Clinical Ecologist," in "With Trust in Place: Writing from the Outside," ed. Alice Leahy (Dublin: Townhouse, 2003): 44-51.

"Living Simply That Others Might Simply Live," Irish Times, Rite and Reason Column, May 5th 2003.

"The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland." A treatment of women in myth, church, history, and politics in Ireland, the study ranges from pre-Christian, early Christian, and late medieval Ireland, and explores the contemporary consequences of decisions taken, and political structures established during those eras. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989: Dublin: New Island Books, 2002).

"Gender and Myth," Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women's Studies, Editors Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender, 4 vols (London: Routledge, 2000), vol. 3. pp.1424-1427.

"Theology of Sacrifice and the Non-Ordination of Women", in Concilium: the Non-Ordination of Women and the Politics of Power, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Hermann Haring, vol. 3, (London: S.C.M. Press, 1999), pp. 50-57.

"I Desire Mercy Not Sacrifice." Feminist Theology, No. 15, May 1997.

"Gender and Representation", and "Celtic Spirituality", entries in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, eds. Letty Russell and Shannon Clarkson (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1996).

"Sacrifice and Political Legitimation: The Production of a Gendered Social Order", Journal of Women’s History, Spring, 1995.

"Feminism, Religion, and Therapy," Inside/Out: A Quarterly Publication for Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, vol. 23, 1995.

"Women as a Colonised People," in Womanspirit, vol. 7, no. 2, Autumn, 1993.

"Women, Religion, and Northern Ireland," Keynote Address to Women and Religion Conference, University of Ulster, Jordanstown, Sept. 1992. Centre for Research on Women, 1992.

"Patriarchy and Death," in Womanspirit Bonding, ed. Janet Kalven and Mary Buckley (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1984).

"If an evil is branded it chooses weapons,
and one become embroiled in an endless struggle.
It is better to make progress toward the good.
The superior person abandons the field of adversity.
Thus, finding no opponent,
the weapons of evil become dulled."

Analects of Confucius, 500 BCE


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