Monday, December 31, 2007

Papal teaching on gender roles in the married state

Over at The God Fearin' Forum, a small discussion exists in the comments about the difference between Pius XI's (in the encyclical Casti Connubii) and John Paul II's (in the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem as well as in his Theology of the Body audiences) teaching on gender roles in the married state. It is a very, very interesting issue to me - particularly because I read a lot of these sources when writing my undergraduate thesis. Let's examine the question in brief.

26. Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that "order of love," as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: "Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church."[29]

27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband's every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.

28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact .

29. With great wisdom Our predecessor Leo XIII, of happy memory, in the Encyclical on Christian marriage which We have already mentioned, speaking of this order to be maintained between man and wife, teaches: "The man is the ruler of the family, and the head of the woman; but because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, let her be subject and obedient to the man, not as a servant but as a companion, so that nothing be lacking of honor or of dignity in the obedience which she pays. Let divine charity be the constant guide of their mutual relations, both in him who rules and in her who obeys, since each bears the image, the one of Christ, the other of the Church."[30]


Most modern dwellers are shocked to read the above quote and it is a sad indictment indeed - their mourning that is, not the truth of the quote. It is clear above that this Catholic teaching is reflected in the Papal teaching of both Pius XI and Leo XIII. There is no novelty. There is nothing new to see here. It is traditional Catholic teaching. Pius XI explains it very well. The family, being as it is a society, must follow an order of love with the husband as the head and the wife submitted to his leadership. He is quick to note what this headship does not entail: it does not take away in any way the dignity of the woman which must be always held in high regard, nor does it mean she is to obey his every command (if it be not in accord with right reason or her dignity), nor does it lessen the fact that if the husband should fail his duty the wife may take over for the good of the family. Just as secular society must be ordered, with an authoritative head to keep it in order, so too the domestic family.

Who can miss the beauty and force of Pius XI's teaching, succinctly put in the following passage: "it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love." That is the essence of it: both the head and the heart, functioning properly in their own capacities, are necessary to keep the family healthy.

Now may we turn to John Paul II's apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem:

24. The text is addressed to the spouses as real women and men. It reminds them of the "ethos" of spousal love which goes back to the divine institution of marriage from the "beginning". Corresponding to the truth of this institution is the exhortation: "Husbands, love your wives", love them because of that special and unique bond whereby in marriage a man and a woman become "one flesh" (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31). In this love there is a fundamental affirmation of the woman as a person. This affirmation makes it possible for the female personality to develop fully and be enriched. This is precisely the way Christ acts as the bridegroom of the Church; he desires that she be "in splendour, without spot or wrinkle" (Eph 5:27). One can say that this fully captures the whole "style" of Christ in dealing with women. Husbands should make their own the elements of this style in regard to their wives; analogously, all men should do the same in regard to women in every situation. In this way both men and women bring about "the sincere gift of self".

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.


It is important to keep John Paul II's main focus in content. His emphasis is the Apostle's emphasis on love. The former-Pontiff states: "It reminds them of the 'ethos' of spousal love which goes back to the divine institution of marriage from the 'beginning'." In the following paragraph he refers to "a 'mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ' (cf. Eph 5:21)." One of the greatest problems here is that he does not develop this phrase. In addition, it is in quotes and appears to find a basis in Ephesians 5:21, which states "Being subject one to another, in the fear of Christ." This mutual subjection may be fine if understood that in some sense the husband enacts this subjection by being subject to the wife in her capacity as heart of the family (which in no way means he is not the head of the family). However John Paul II never develops this aspect in depth or necessary clarity.

We come now to the problematic reference in Mulieris Dignitatem when compared to Pius XI's and Leo XIII's teaching: "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." One of the greatest difficulties here is the fact that the Apostle is using the relationship of Christ to the Church as a parallel to the husband and his wife. When John Paul II says that this parallel breaks down, it makes one wonder why the Apostle would use such an imperfect analogy.

On the other hand, the teaching of Pius XI and Leo XIII - that the husband is the head, the wife the heart, in the order of love in the domestic society of the family - fits quite well with the teaching of the Apostle in Ephesians 5. Just as Christ is head of the Church, so too the husband is head of the wife and his family - which includes, mind you, that he must be willing to give himself up for her, out of love for her. He must always love her. Just as the Church, led by Christ, must nourish her members and bring them to full stature in Christ so must the wife nourish and raise her family in love.

It is safe to say that John Paul II is emphasizing Ephesians 5:21 as a key to interpreting the entire passage. It is true that in the love due to each person we ought to be subject to each other. However, it appears John Paul II takes this idea a bit too far. The mutual subjection that we owe to one another out of reverence for Christ must be understood properly with the analogy the Apostle gives of Christ and the Church. This mutual subjection out of love cannot negate the order necessary in the family. What the Apostle says after Ephesians 5:21 must be understood in conjunction with it rather than negated by it in any way. John Paul II never does say that Ephesians 5:21 negates the teaching of verse 24 ("Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things") nor could he. It is more likely he is including a further dimension, that in some way the husband is subject to his wife insofar as we are all to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, the principle found in 5:21.

One of the greatest difficulties here is that John Paul II's teaching is not entirely clear. A variety of ideas could be construed from the paragraphs in Mulieris Dignitatem. At very least we can say that in a world of great confusion, especially in the family, this ambiguity only makes it more difficult to know the true teaching on the order of love in the family. The idea of "mutual subjection" sounds as if the authority of the husband has been discounted and both parties are equal in regard to authority. The idea of equality in authority only leads to chaos and anarchy in the family where there is no clear head leading the way. It also discounts the mother's role as the heart of the family, leading women to disregard their role in raising the family in love in favor of handling other concerns.

One final point, the teaching of John Paul II came in the form of an apostolic letter rather than an encyclical. The teaching of Pius XI and Leo XIII must hold greater sway, coming in the form of two encyclicals which taught in one accord and in full agreement with the tradition before them beginning with the Apostle. We can learn from John Paul II's emphasis on the mutual subjection we all owe to one another in Christ, based on Ephesians 5:21, but we must always understand it without disregarding the husband as head and wife as heart in the family's order of love.

2 comments:

Tim A. Troutman said...

Excellent post. Thanks for following up with this.

StBasil said...

Thanks for stopping by to read it. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've definitely enjoyed your blog as well.

Pax Christi tecum.