It has been some time since I covered the subject of Catholic teaching about sex and marriage. The last post I wrote on the subject, The Christian Family and Understanding God’s Authority, covered an article that did a good job explaining Traditional Church teaching about marriage, submission and headship. It served as a nice antidote for the false misunderstandings and false teaching found in the first and second posts in this series.
This brings me to this post. While following links through various blogs, I came across the blog The Sincere Gift, where the blogmistress (who was the reader/commenter that pointed me to the article I linked above) had written a post about marriage and headship in a Catholic context. Within she quoted extensively from Mulieris Dignitatem, a letter written by (then) Pope John Paul II in 1988. The entire letter is incredibly long, and I won’t insist that people read it in its entirety. Instead, I am going to quote selectively from it, using many of the same passages that Mrs. C used in her post. As you will learn, the title is somewhat misleading for this post- omission isn’t the sole problem here.
Therefore when we read in the biblical description the words addressed to the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16), we discover a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this “unity of the two” which corresponds to the dignity of the image and likeness of God in both of them. But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of “being a sincere gift” and therefore living “for” the other: “he shall rule over you”. This “domination” indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the “unity of the two”: and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman, whereas only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic “communio personarum”. While the violation of this equality, which is both a gift and a right deriving from God the Creator, involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man.
The immediate problem with this particular paragraph is found in the emphasis on “equality.” By itself it isn’t dangerous, but together with some other concepts can distort the truth of what God intended. The problem lies with the fact that the equality is in value or worth, not in authority (at least, in the context of marriage). But this distinction is not mentioned, it is omitted, if you will. The language on domination will also be important later.
This statement in Genesis 3:16 is of great significance. It implies a reference to the mutual relationship of man and woman in marriage. It refers to the desire born in the atmosphere of spousal love whereby the woman’s “sincere gift of self” is responded to and matched by a corresponding “gift” on the part of the husband. Only on the basis of this principle can both of them, and in particular the woman, “discover themselves” as a true “unity of the two” according to the dignity of the person. The matrimonial union requires respect for and a perfecting of the true personal subjectivity of both of them. The woman cannot become the “object” of “domination” and male “possession”. But the words of the biblical text directly concern original sin and its lasting consequences in man and woman. Burdened by hereditary sinfulness, they bear within themselves the constant “inclination to sin”, the tendency to go against the moral order which corresponds to the rational nature and dignity of man and woman as persons.
A couple of points to make here. The first, and more important of the two, is that there is an omission here (in this paragraph and others)- the reason for Adam’s punishment. What is that reason? Here is some more scripture to clear it up:
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
God punished Adam in part because he obeyed, “listened to voice of”, his wife. Adam committed two sins: he obeyed Eve, and he ate from the tree. Of course, the only reason why Adam could have sinned by obeying his wife was if he wasn’t supposed to obey his wife. Logic and reason dictate that the only explanation for this would be that it was Eve who was supposed to do the obeying, not Adam. All of which destroys the argument here that it is because of original sin that women are “ruled” by men. Hierarchy and authority are etched into foundation of reality- they are not the product of disorder. Rather, anarchy and rebellion against authority is the product of disorder, of sin. God has authority over us because he created us. Jesus has authority over us because “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col 1:15); by virtue of being eldest Jesus has authority over us. Likewise it is with Man and Woman. Woman was created for Man to be his helpmeet, and so that he wouldn’t be alone. Original sin didn’t create the marital hierarchy- it existed before the Fall. Its existence, in fact, is rooted in natural law and the moral order of the universe.
Also, the line about a woman not being a “male possession” isn’t exactly consistent with scripture:
24 He who acquires a wife gets his best possession,
a helper fit for him and a pillar of support.
Wives are also referred to as treasures in scripture, and the Book of Sirach compares them to “a fertile field”, i.e. a valuable property. [In fact, for Jews of the time, land was perhaps the most valuable asset a man had (besides, as this scripture points out, his wife).] Also, Scripture does not refer to this as an evil at all. Now, this may sound ugly to modern ears, but as Christians we should be conforming to God, not to the world and its beliefs. The New Testament does clarify the roles of husbands and wives, and through that clarification an argument can be made that the old order was swept away (this is in fact argued in part of the letter quoted later). Indeed, one could argue that 1 Cor 7:4 makes the spouses the owners of the body of the other spouse. But if wives cannot be “possessed”, then that is a change, and should be acknowledged as such, because the Old Testament indicates otherwise.
I should also say that the use of the phrase “discover themselves” highly troubled me, as it is straight out of most nearly all feminist playbooks. The context is not consistent with its use by feminists, but I can’t say that I am comfortable with using their language.
This brings us to the second to last section I’ve excerpted:
In our times the question of “women’s rights” has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the “unity” of the “two”, that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words “He shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the “masculinization” of women. In the name of liberation from male “domination”, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality”. There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not “reach fulfillment”, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. In the biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words which fill the whole history of man on earth.
The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfillment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers. The inheritance of sin suggested by the words of the Bible – “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” – can be conquered only by following this path. The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man. For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation.
Really quickly I want to point out the problem here with the language about “rightful opposition.” Once again, no effort is made to distinguish between right and proper authority, and improper “rule.” Without that context, this work can only serve to undermine marriage, as it seems to encourage the idea that the exercise of any authority in marriage by a man is wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the language used here implies that authority by a man over a woman is inherently the product of sin.
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.
In relation to the “old” this is evidently something “new”: it is an innovation of the Gospel. We find various passages in which the apostolic writings express this innovation, even though they also communicate what is “old”: what is rooted in the religious tradition of Israel, in its way of understanding and explaining the sacred texts, as for example the second chapter of the Book of Genesis 49.
At last everything becomes clear. Mutual Submission or Subjection is the end point. No mention is made here of 1 Peter 3 or Col 3. They are simply ignored- omitted. Instead, we see the usual tactic of using Eph 5:21 to try and “clarify” the next passages. And yet, there is no explanation as to why that provision, which if applied to the following passages changes their entire nature, does not show up in the other parts of the New Testament dealing with marriage and authority. Instead, we get references to a “new” way of thinking and speaking using the “old” language. This is, said respectfully, utter rubbish. Christian women in 1 Peter 3 are told to be subject to non-Christian husbands, men who don’t even know Christ, so how does this “mutual subjection” work then? Answer: It doesn’t. Ephesians 5:21 isn’t applied to marriage, it fits with the verses above it. The Douay-Rheims 1899 American translation provides the proper, accurate picture:
18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury; but be ye filled with the holy Spirit,
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord;
20 Giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God and the Father:
21 Being subject one to another, in the fear of Christ.
22 Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord:
23 Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body.
24 Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things.
Both verses, 5:21 and 5:22, are set apart and do not address the same topics. Mutual Submission or Subjection is between Christians in general. Marriage changes the relationship between them. A different hierarchy, the marital hierarchy, applies. I could delve further into this, but that is probably best reserved for another post. Besides, others with better command of Scripture and Tradition than I have spoken on it.
Of course, it might be that JPII didn’t intend to convey that there is no authority exercised by a husband in marriage. He merely might have been trying to clarify the equal value that women hold in the eyes of God, and their ability to contribute in ways that are equal in the eyes of God. But his omission of clear mentions of authority and hierarchy within marriage creates quite the opposite impression. Worth acknowledging, however, is that there are other Papal missives on the subject of marriage. Perhaps he covered authority and hierarchy in marriage at other times, and in an unambiguous manner. His motivation in this letter might merely have been to cover some very specific theological points. What concerns me is that his words seem little different that what you would expect to find uttered by a Christo-Feminist Protestant who advocates egalitarian marriages. Especially troubling is the use of Ephesians 5:21, which would seem to forswear any exercise of authority by the husband over the wife. Even if JP II didn’t intend to advance feminism through this letter, his use of language and adherence to their frame could not help but do so.
My fear, however, is that he was intending to limit the exercise of authority within Christian marriage. Or perhaps he was trying to placate feminists by using flowery and open-ended language in the hopes of making everyone happy without conceding too much. Either scenario, however, involves conforming to the world, which we are called not to do as Christians. Given the length of this piece, it was not something that would have been created hastily. This was a carefully crafted message. And with messages like this, it is not wonder that marriage is in so much trouble within the Catholic Church. Such language could easily be exploited. Perhaps the Orthodox Church is faring better, but the sad truth is that no one, Protestant or Catholic, can say that their faith tradition has escaped the rot of feminism. Its roots are deep, and ever growing. And as Dalrock has pointed out, all too often it is “That Which Must Not Be Named.” Until we acknowledge or recognize the infection, we cannot begin to fight it.
[For an example of another Papal document on marriage, Mrs. C directed me to Casti Connubii)