Nonverbal Interaction: Another Take on Why Women Can’t Be Priests

Editor’s note: The following is an essay from Dr. Gintautas Vaitoska, lecturer for psychology and religion at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria. He has taught at Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University and St. Joseph Seminary, Vilnius, Lithuania, and has done extensive work with pre-Cana programs, marriage counseling, and chastity education.

Nonverbal communication has always been an important part of general communication skills. Although less discussed in everyday life, it is an explicit part of training diplomats, lecturers, artists, and psychologists. In urbanized society, this kind of communication seems to play an even more important role than in previous times: in contrast to a communal style of life, city people often find themselves in situations where nonverbal communication remains the only link among them, mute passers- or standers-by as they are. Think of riding a public train, for example. Sometimes explicitly and other times almost automatically, we nearly always perceive other people sitting around or in front of us, think about their appearance, possible occupations, social status, etc. This mode of nonverbal interaction is described by psychologists as “eye behavior” [1]. We do not intend to engage in it; rather, it “happens” to us. It is this communication through the glance that is the topic of our inquiry here.

The importance of looking transcends the modern discussions of the nuances of communication. It is of paramount importance for our interior life. As classical psychology states, our thinking process is also based on the sequence of phantasms or images [2]. To a certain extent, therefore, it seems legitimate to say that looking is identical with thinking. In Mt. 5:28, Jesus says: “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He does not say: “Everyone who thinks about the woman with lust.” In the process of keeping one’s thoughts in line with the will of the Lord – the essential component of the authentic growth in virtue – it is necessary to pay conscious attention to the way we look at something or somebody. For even if it often passes unnoticed, at least at a “subconscious” level, we really think with our eyes. It is exactly because this thinking, in its automatic and spontaneous quality, reaches the deeper layers of our soul that the old ascetic advice of the “custody of the eyes” can give such a powerful boost to one’s interior transformation.

In the text of Matthew 5, it is interesting to notice that the words of Christ are addressed specifically to men. Did this happen by chance, or is there a deeper law of visual interaction implicit here? Another text on the patterns of looking speaks, in an amusing way, about the “receptive” character of feminine behavior: “Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes” (Pr. 6:25). In both of these cases, Holy Scripture speaks of a certain digression from the straight paths of the heart: the visual “attack” of a man and the conscious attempt of a woman to “absorb” someone in a “receptive” mode of lustful looking constitute a consent for the impulse of the sensitive appetite, thus going over the line of what is still not a sin. While pondering on the modes of masculine and feminine glances, we always find ourselves in this zone of subtle interplay between simple sensitivity and lust – a field in which complete transparency is a gift of grace rather than a personal achievement.

A profound coverage of this dynamism can be found in Karol Wojtyła’s chapter on the “Metaphysics of Shame” [3]. “The development of sexual modesty – as we call the constant capacity and readiness to feel shame – follows one course in girls and women and another in boys and men,” writes the author. “Since sensuality, which is oriented towards the body as an object of enjoyment, is in general stronger and more important in men, modesty and shame – the tendency to conceal sexual values specifically connected with the body – must be more pronounced in girls and women” [4]. On the other hand, “a man does not have to fear female sensuality[.] … He is, however, very keenly aware of his own sensuality, and this is for him the source of shame” [5]. These two forms of shame – the first of them protecting a woman from being reduced to the object of enjoyment and the second preventing a man from becoming a “consumer” – are described by Wojtyła, correspondingly, as the physical and the emotional or psychological shame [6]. Therefore, for a man lacking in modesty, emotional or psychological shamelessness consists “in the rejection of a healthy tendency to be ashamed of reactions and feelings which make another person merely an object of use because of sensual values” and of when “in his feelings toward a woman he feels no inner shame for his urge towards sensual and sexual exploitation” [7]. The woman, on the other hand, can be “physically shameless,” or immodest, when she presents herself in a way “that the values of sex as such are given such prominence” that they obscure the value of her personality [8].

We are speaking of the laws of modesty and shame, but let us not forget that we are dealing here with visual behavior. Consequently, the analysis of the patterns according to which shame functions differently in the sexes can be helpful in understanding the laws of male-female interaction by glance in general – i.e., not only when the issue at stake is that of immodesty. Before arriving at a more precise definition of the peculiarities of the visual communication between a man and a woman, we could formulate it as follows: in the visual interaction, a man looks at, while a woman is looked at. A man is, as it were, projecting his attention through his eyes, while a woman is receiving and attracting it. A man is “going out” of himself; a woman is “staying within” and “calling towards” herself. This law also seems to be supported by the traditional admiration of the feminine face in art and literature, and even by some psychological experiments [9]. The words of Jesus to men in Matthew’s Gospel and the admonition of the Proverbs regarding “eye behavior” point in the same direction.

This pattern of nonverbal communication between a man and a woman corresponds well with what could be said about the complementary nature of human character in general. Criticizing “the widespread bias in the Western world by which receiving is regarded as inferior to giving,” and grounding his claims in the rich analysis of the deeper symbolism of the structure of human embrace, sexual intercourse, and fertilization, philosopher Robert Joyce puts the principles of activity and receptivity in men and women in good balance: “I would define a man as a human being who both gives in a receiving way and receives in a giving way, but is so structured that he is emphatically inclined toward giving in a receiving way. The nature of being a man is an emphasis on giving in a receiving way. A woman is a human being who both gives in a receiving way and receives in a giving way, but is so structured in her being that she is emphatically inclined toward receiving in a giving way” [10]. Applying Joyce’s formulation to nonverbal communication, we could equally say: a man is a human being who both looks and is looked at in nonverbal interaction but is emphatically inclined toward looking at and “projecting” his glance; a woman is a human being who both looks and is looked at in nonverbal communication but is emphatically inclined to attract the glance and attention, to receive it in a giving way.

This seems to be a natural state of things within human beings. We do not think how to react in nonverbal interaction; rather, our glance and our “energies” react in a certain way, as in a kind of psychological reflex.


After this general analysis of nonverbal interaction and “eye behavior,” we can approach the issue of nonverbal communication at Mass.

Although the priest standing at the altar represents the second person of the Holy Trinity, he also has all human qualities and characteristics, as Jesus Christ Himself had them in His human nature. But we attend Mass not in order to listen to the priest. We are eager to hear the Word of God; the priest is only a mediator. His task is to convey this Word and to mediate God’s love to us in the Holy Sacrifice. Although invited to participate actively in the liturgy, the gathered community is primarily receptive, staying “within,” contemplating the gifts that flow through the altar toward the faithful. The necessary quality for the priest is to be in tune with the giving relation of God with his people; in the best possible manner, the priest’s human nature must enable this act of giving to happen.

From the point of visual interaction, it is the male nature of the priest that best fulfills this requirement – although never perfectly. We emphasize nature here, for it is not the personal merits of the priest that are responsible for this; nobody could dispute that there are many women who are holier than men, more profound, “meditative,” wise. These “phenomenological” considerations can nevertheless help, in an age that emphasizes the personal experience of the Church’s teaching, to clarify the doctrinal position according to which the maleness of the priest pertains to the signification of the Sacrament: the priest is a living “icon” of Christ the Bridegroom-Priest [11].

We must discuss now the exact mode and input of the visual communication at Mass, which allows us to be so “sexist” and “non-modern” with the issue at stake. The direction of the event of Mass is ex-centric: the power of God, the gift, comes from the altar to the people. As we have already discussed, the feminine nature is fundamentally of a receptive character. When the priest faces the faithful, the natural qualities of his spontaneous visual interaction must have a projective, ex-centric or giving character, and in this way, they coincide with the main semantic direction of Mass. This is a predominantly masculine mode of interaction by sight.

If a woman were celebrating the Mass, her words and actions would aim at the same objective: to convey the Word of God. But the automatic process of interaction by glance sets the flow of attention in the opposite direction: toward the woman. There is a contradiction between the intention to be a transmitting link in the chain God-priest-faithful and the spontaneous receiving of attention by reason of the feminine nature.

To be sure, this receiving and attracting quality of nonverbal interaction of a particular person has little to do with an intention to do so; primarily, it is an objective mode of feminine interaction. Even if it is true that, occasionally, there can be a wish to attract attention on the part of the person standing at the altar, or, likewise, somebody in the congregation can exhibit a conscious intention to “broadcast” an excessive interest, these subjective “initiatives” only add speed and power, so to speak, to the basic and objective modes of nonverbal activity and receptivity. For, fundamentally speaking, what we are dealing here is not morality, but anthropology [12].

In the context of what has been said, we may speak more exactly about the issue of girls serving at the altar. The logic of the visual interaction between people of opposite sexes would have to demand that girls serve at the altar before they enter upon the age of a bride – i.e., before puberty. The blossoming of girl’s beauty at this age calls for attention quite naturally, and with force: the primarily receptive character of the bride’s feminine nature logically reaches culmination at the moment she is called to fulfill her vocation of inviting and receiving a bridegroom. Her attractiveness and beauty are a blessing from God, but they do not fit the basically ex-centric direction of the Mass. The logos of the liturgy should flow from the altar and be “situated” in the “within” of the believer, and not in the opposite direction. Especially we should think of teenage males, who are in the stage of life that calls them to look for a female friend. The withinness of attention should not be disrupted by its spontaneous flow toward a girl in her bridal age [13].

We can attempt to answer two possible objections here. Somebody could say I am speaking from a masculine perspective, and thus, my sensitivity to the question of “visual” receptivity of the woman-priest standing at the altar is boosted by my masculinity. Consequently, the logic of the argument would require positing an equal discomfort on the part of a woman with regards to the (male) priest. If the argument is based on the disturbing character of feminine-masculine attraction during Mass, it is irrelevant, for women in the male-celebrated Mass would face the same problem as men would face if the ordination of women were established. The answer to this objection seems to be related to the essential receptivity of women: she is the object of visual attraction for both men and women. Feminine beauty attracts the eyes of another woman along with the sight of a man (although the mode of looking is different – perhaps that of identification rather than interest).

A question could also be raised whether the receptive nature of a female professor derails the process of conveying information, say, at an academic lecture. The answer is no, although it may cause distraction to the audience for the reasons we have given. As we have seen, each of the two sexes possesses the giving and the receiving dimensions, with the difference in emphases. The female professor uses the “giving” aspect of her activity, and the remaining “receiving” mode of her nonverbal visual interaction with the audience in the case of the lecture is of relatively little importance. The Holy Mass, however, is a process of different modality: its meditative character, the fragile vibrancy of the interior integration of God’s message into our hearts, demands a “purer” receptivity than in the case of a lecture. The university is a human institution, after all, while the Mass is divine, with divine symbolism that must be adhered to. It seems not by accident that the High Priest Jesus Christ mediated the action of God though his masculine nature, just as the human priest does, acting in persona Christi [14].

The analysis of “eye behavior” at Mass can also shed light on the discussion of whether the priest should face the congregation or the altar. What is he supposed to “do” with his eyes? One occasionally hears a remark about being disturbed by the “wandering eye” of the priest. A gentleman in the United States once uttered: “I hate this priest’s looking at me during the liturgy. I go to the Byzantine liturgy instead, where I am not distracted in this way.” While the visual “thinking” of the main celebrant is more readily concentrated on the Lord and less distracted by his seeing the congregation, the wandering glances of the Mass servers or even of the concelebrants seems to pose a greater challenge to the proper concentration of the faithful and their wish to avoid pointless visual interactions with persons on the altar.


Some readers could treat our support for the maleness of priesthood on the basis of laws of visual interaction as but one more offense to women on the part of “conservatives.” But this is to look at it the wrong way. I could answer that, as a layman, I feel equally “offended” by the higher status of the priest in the Church. On occasion, I could give a better homily in front of the congregation than the priest who is up there. Happily enough, Christianity has a good remedy for the treatment of ambitions: the principle of the last place. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Mark (9:35). It is in becoming childlike that we approach the kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 18:3). It is a painful remedy, but, nevertheless, it is the only real one. It is not important to be important; “importance” weighs one down.

The openness and receptivity of a child’s nature, as of someone who has retained this nature in his adult years, is significant in still another respect. Anyone who has at least some experience of talking to a group of people may have noticed that the success of his or her talk often depends on some peculiar circumstances. These can at times be more influential than the readiness and preparation of the lecturer. It is receptive personalities who have such an influence: through a silent contact and relatedness, it is as if they encourage the talker to express his thoughts clearly and fluently. This stance, which could be mistaken as “passivity” by those who perceive activity on purely masculine terms, is in fact active – and, at times, even crucial to the outcome of the lecture! Though scarcely examined in this respect, the individual speaking in front of the group is participating in what could be called “communal” thinking. What we have in mind here is not something like Avicenna’s concept of a common intellect for all men, but rather a difference in subtle modalities of one’s thinking in a dialogue depending on the peculiarities of the person or persons one is talking with [15].

This dimension also has its place in religious gatherings and especially at Mass. The primacy of receptivity in the female nature can be especially “active” and influential in creating the soil in which the Word is received. Equally, a man must use the “receptive” dimension of his personality when he is listening to the priest.

At the conclusion of this essay, let me call your attention to an old metaphor, a way of ancient thinking. In the traditional household of an agricultural society, a man was considered the head of the home and the woman the heart of it. She was deeply respected by the members of the community and held a position of obvious centrality in the family itself. The question “which is more important: the head or the heart?” seems meaningless. It is true that the head speaks, but, according to the wisdom of the Old Testament, the place of wisdom in man is the heart. The mind can think about the subtle issues of male-female communication, but the heart knows them. If Catholics (including the clergy) could take seriously their intuitions and experiences, many abuses of the liturgy would either never arise or would be rooted out.

[1] See Virginia P. Richmond etc., Nonverbal Behasveikvior in Interpersonal Relations, Prentice Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs,. New Jersey, 1991, p. 73.

[2] cf. Summa Theologica, I, Q. 84, art.7.

[3] Love and Responsibility, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1991. See also his subtle analysis of the relationship among sensuality, passion, and lust in the process of perception, p. 148.

[4] Idem, p.176.

[5] p.177

[6] cf. p. 178. It seems legitimate, for describing this “masculine” form of shame, to use the term “psychological” as a synonym to the Wojtyla’s “emotional” – as to reflect the broader scope of interior response to the utilitarian attitude: thoughts, emotions and psychophysical reactions.

[7] p.188.

[8] p. 187.

[9] An interesting experimental psychological study of D.R. Ruther (“Looking and Seeing: the role of visual communication in social interaction,” Chichester, New York, 1984) can also complement the analysis of feminine-masculine interaction by sight. Ruther’s experiment has shown that, starting from babies above infant age, all subjects, irrespective of gender and age, gaze at adult women 90% more than at men. While reading such studies, one is tempted to ask: do we need empirical experiments to see that women are more beautiful than men?

[10] Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology, p. 67

[11] cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1612

[12] It seems relevant to add here that the dynamic of nonverbal interaction described above is most vividly expressed in Novus Ordo Masses celebrated versus populum. When the priest faces the East – either in the Novus Ordo or in the traditional Latin Mass – his visual interaction with the faithful is limited to the reading of the Word of God and the sermon.

[13] The power and mystery of the feminine face, so often overlooked in the midst of the daily rush, was so acutely sensed by St. Francis of Assisi. The saint had a special reverence for women, considering each a bride of Christ. Asked by a friend why he did not look up at a girl who with such a great admiration gazed at the saint during the conversation, he answered that he does not dare to look at the beauty of the bride of Christ (as told in the biography of St. Francis of Assisi by J. Joergensen, Munchen, 1935).

[14] An explicit treatise of this principle can be found in Benedict Ashley’s article “Gender and the Priesthood of Christ,” The Thomist, vol. 57, no 3.

[15] At least some glimpses into understanding of this phenomenon can be provided by psychotherapy and also by the psychology of language-learning. The important dimension in overcoming stuttering lies in the establishment of a good rapport with the one to whom one speaks; also, the teachers of languages are well aware of the importance of the good quality of interpersonal contact for fluency in foreign languages, as well as even one’s native language. It is not only the “movements of the tongue” that are supported by a receptive listener, but the thinking process itself.

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