On Feminism, Castration, and Women’s Ordination

by jdavidcharles

A common feminist critique levied against Freud and Lacan is the universality of the “phallus,” speaking of the phallus as a given presence and therefore any absence as a castration. Of course if this is all that is meant by symbolic castration and the use phallocentric language, than it would be terribly misogynistic, reducing the female biological make-up to an absence polarized by the male form as given or a norm. However this not only neglects Freud’s writings on the issue but precisely what is meant by phallus throughout the whole of psychoanalysis.

The phallus does not exist as a biological presence, the penis, but rather as a semiotic absence, a lack. The phallus is not the penis in the same way that “masculinity” is not the penis—masculinity is a certain socially qualified symbol. Likewise the phallus, as used in both Freudianism and Feminism, represents a certain dominance, the notion of inherent power. Thus certain Feminists have accused Freud of Phallocentrism, male dominance, when this was precisely his point. Penis substitution than should be read in light of this, for every phallus is a penis substitute, some outward form to point to in order to prove one’s power (whether that be a job, wealth, prowess, etc); however, whatever object we invest as phallus, a demonstration of power, “lacks” in that it falls short, is not a penis. In this way everyone has a phallus, male or female, in that all of us create or invest unto objects the significance of our sexual/psychical being as a power-symbol.

All of this is to say that the language of “phallus” should not be thought of in terms of presence, for the phallus, in that it is not the penis but a false penis, is always an absence (in the way trauma is an absence, something denied). This is why one cannot speak of the phallus in psychoanalysis without inevitably talking about symbolic castration, which is the fear of losing this power, the fear of revealing the phallus as it actually is—a void. Thus the phallus is always already castrated, always a void, an empty space, but it requires some psychical action to reveal it as such to the subject. Castration then is not a removal but a deconstruction of power-structure, a revelation of the absence we think of as “inherent” power. To recap: phallocentric power-structure is the phallic “masculine” (which is equally shared by men and women alike), the symbolically castrated male is in turn associated with traditional “femininity” (servility, submission).

Now, if we are to take these ideas about gender imagery and apply them to the image of Christ and the church we obtain some radical ideas about power and gender. When we enter the church building we enter the kingdom of God where there is no male or female—no masculine or feminine. Here we encounter Lacan’s “negation of negation,”[1] where I expected to lose something (castration) I discovered what I had all along was a lack. The church parish than is the building where the phallus is revealed to be a lack, already castrated, a true void. Christian charity is precisely this lack, this recognition of my true absence of self. Think of St. Paul with is “if I had all” I would be nothing without love language.[2] Zizek comments upon this passage stating that with love “I also am nothing”[3]; with knowledge of all mystery, faith, etc, I am denying my nothingness and therefore am nothing, while charity is this negation of negation, an acceptance of my nothingness as such. Is not charity as castration, negation of negation, precisely what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death? By his very submission and assumption of death (the lack) Christ revealed himself to have conquered it. In the giving up of phallus as symbolic power-structure we become more than mere conquerors by the very absence of this power, which is humility, Christian love.

Rightly speaking then there is no more male or female in the Christian church, for the phallic masculine is given up and overcome and all are made “feminine,” the bride of Christ. A common objection to female ordination is that the priest, primarily through the consecration, acts out Christ to the church, and in that Christ was male the priest should be likewise. This stance fundamentally ignores that true power is recognizing it does not exist, an accepting of the lack (castration), a being made “woman-sexed” (to quote Jungian monk-poet Brother Antoninus).[4] The priest than does not represent Christ in that he is male but in that Christ gave up the masculine, gave up the phallus by embracing its castration, an action equally called upon both males and females to do via Christian humility (“emptying” of the self, death to the old man, baptism as burial with and through Christ, etc). Christ’s power in death was not due to any inherent right but the recognition that no such right or power exists. This radical embracing of pure humility, which is true power, is how the priest represents Christ to the church, the church in turn to the world.

Thus to ask whether or not women can or should be priests is using the language of phallic inherency—mistaking the phallus for a presence, a list of qualities, rights, and seeing if women have these “qualities.” This very form of thinking (which very much resembles St. Paul’s rejected notion of Law and transgression) seems antithetical to Christian charity and humility. The priest only has the “quality” of Christ, the quality of bearing the authority of Christ, in that he or she embraces his or her lack of authority (sinfulness). The new man, the spirit, only exists in the recognition of the death and void of the old man, the flesh. The spirit is the flesh embraced as it always has been and already is—dead.


[1] Seminar XX

[2] I Corinthians 13

[3] “The Real of Sexual Difference,” from Interrogating the Real, 308-9

[4] “Annul in me my manhood,” from The Crooked Lines of God

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