One, Holy, Catholic, and Neuter

The Church today suffers from a deficiency in her identity, lacking awareness of both her Marian and Petrine dimensions. I borrow these concepts from Hans Urs von Balthasar to explore the feminine and masculine aspects of the Church. In some ways we have become a neuter Church, lacking both Mary’s feminine receptivity toward Christ and Peter’s masculine boldness toward the world. (This is not to say that men are incapable of accessing the feminine dimension in their soul or that women cannot exhibit a masculine boldness vis-à-vis the world).

The Marian dimension of the Church precedes the Petrine. The Petrine dimension of the Church includes ecclesiastical structures that are necessary: the pope, bishops, and priests who are ordained to govern the Church, celebrate the sacraments, and preach the Gospel. But these activities cannot be limited to externals. The Marian, feminine dimension of the Church reminds us that receptivity precedes activity. Jesus praised another Mary for sitting at his feet and listening to him, in contrast with Martha who was preoccupied with the human activity of serving the Lord.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has written about a misplaced masculinity in our approach to the Church. He has in mind our own internal relationship with the Church and not the masculine boldness we need in preaching the Gospel in a secular culture. In Mary, the Church at the Source, he writes, “In today’s intellectual climate, only the masculine principle counts. And that means doing, achieving results, actively planning and producing the world oneself … this attitude characterizes our whole approach to the Church. We treat the Church almost like some technological device that we plan and make … this is why the Church needs the Marian mystery; this is why the Church herself is a Marian mystery.”

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The Marian mystery is one of humble, feminine receptivity to the grace of God and the love of Christ. It is modeled on Mary’s fiat in the Annunciation—”Let it be done to me according to your word”—followed by the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of Mary. All of us are first called to imitate this Marian fiat before receiving the grace of Peter’s boldness in proclaiming the Gospel. As the Latin legal maxim reminds us, Nemo dat quod non habet. “No one can give what he does not have.” Applying this phrase to the spiritual life, it is clear that no one can give to others what he has not first received from God. As Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Peter himself possessed a dimension of Marian receptivity to Christ’s love. When the risen Christ appeared to Peter and several other apostles by the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter replied three times, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” We can assume that Jesus was looking intently at Peter and loving him. Peter received this love and reciprocated. Only then did Jesus say, “Feed my sheep.”

Later, Peter and the apostles received the Spirit at Pentecost to proclaim the Gospel with power, performing miracles and converting thousands of people. Many passages in the Acts of the Apostles are a study in parrhesia, the Greek word that is entering the English language as a technical term for boldness in preaching the Gospel. In chapter 4, we read that the Jewish leaders arrested Peter and the apostles for teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the Resurrection of the dead. Peter preached to the gathered assembly of the elders, scribes and the high-priestly family, who were amazed at the parrhesia of both Peter and John, noticing they were uneducated and ordinary men. The council threatened them and ordered them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Once released, however, they gathered together and prayed, “Lord … grant your servants to speak your word with all parrhesia,” and they continued to fearlessly proclaim the Resurrection of Christ. In comparison with Peter and the apostles, something is definitely lacking in our boldness in sharing the Gospel with our contemporaries.

One reason for the absence of masculine boldness in the Church’s proclamation is precisely the lack of feminine receptivity to Christ’s love within the Church and in the Eucharist. (Recall that Peter first received Christ’s love by the Sea of Tiberias before he proclaimed the Gospel in Jerusalem). What happens in the sanctuary affects the strength of the Church’s witness in the world. In every Eucharist, we should be able to repeat the lovers’ dialogue from the Song of Songs, and apply it to our soul’s relationship with Christ: “My beloved belongs to me and I to him.” It is impossible to have a spiritual and emotional experience of Christ’s love in the Eucharist and to remain the same, or to keep quiet. Those who fall in love always tell their friends.

In a sense, every Christian must learn to imitate Mary at the Annunciation and Peter on Pentecost. Obviously, in the history of salvation, there is no Pentecost and no Church without the Annunciation and the Incarnation. But the same is true with every Christian. Without first accepting the gift of Christ’s love with a Marian receptivity, we will have no personal Pentecost and no Gospel to share.

How can we become more Marian? In part, through consecration to her and by praying the Rosary. Many saints such as St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. John Paul II have promoted personal consecration to Mary as a sure and certain means of sanctification. Through our consecration, and by praying the Rosary with a reverent and recollected spirit, we are asking for Our Lady’s constant intercession to give us a heart like hers to listen to the Word of God and receive the gift of Christ’s love.

How do we imitate Peter’s boldness in preaching the Gospel? Each one of us can pray for the grace of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s gift of boldness. The Charismatic Renewal is evidence that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Peter and the Apostles is alive, active, and powerfully present in the Church today. Those of us ordained to formally preach the Gospel—the pope, bishops, priests, and deacons—should be on our knees begging for a spirit of boldness and courage to meet the challenge of proclaiming Christ in a secular environment that is at times indifferent or even hostile. However, the same is true for the people of God who are called to share the Gospel with their family, friends, and colleagues.

The Marian fiat and the Petrine parrhesia, the feminine and masculine, are both essential to the spiritual health and strength of the Church. Western secular culture may be hurtling further into the abyss of absurd ideologies—for instance, gender theory on the sameness and interchangeability of men and women—but now is the time for the Church to be more clearly masculine and feminine rightly understood. In God’s providential plan, perhaps it is the very prevalence of gender ideology in our secular culture that will drive us deeper into our own identity, and make us more effective witnesses in the world.

I wonder if the Church also needs an element of masculine strength in imitating the men who rebuilt Jerusalem after the Exile. They built with one hand, while the other was ready to grab a sword. We need to protect the tender, vulnerable, feminine, and Marian dimension of our souls and of the Church, so that, in safety and security, we can enjoy the embrace of the Beloved, without fear of being disturbed by our enemies.  Subsequently, when the soul has been deeply nourished and revived by the food of love, then we will receive the stamina, courage and parrhesia to go out into the world to proclaim the Good News.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “St. Peter Weeping before the Virgin” painted by Guercino in 1647.


  • Fr. Tim McCauley

    Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as vocation director and chaplain at Carleton University. He is currently a priest in residence at St. George’s Parish in Ottawa.

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