On the Role of Women in the Roman Catholic Church

Charles McMahon, November, 2006

The debate about the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church has been gathering momentum for some time now. If we consider the histories of emancipation movements in the U.S., we can get an idea of how this momentum will continue to build. The most relevant example would be women’s suffrage. Article 1, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution left to the states the power to determine the qualifications of voters. After a couple of false starts in Wyoming and Utah, Wyoming became the first state to grant women’s suffrage in 1890. It was not until the summer of 1920 that the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified. The lesson to be learned from this is that the suppression of women, which dates back to our distant primitive past, is taking a long time to overcome fully. For example, Switzerland first gave women the right to vote only in 1971.

Now, less than 100 years since the 19th amendment, we can only look back on the previous time with bemusement. With women as university presidents, secretaries of state, corporate CEOs, leading scientists, political leaders, and so on, and with women comprising a clear majority of American college students, the idea of denying women the right to vote would now seem ludicrous in the extreme.

Much of Western culture is inherited from Greco-Roman times. A defining characteristic of the Greco-Roman culture was social stratification and a strong sense of order. One of the tenets of the society of imperial Rome was that harmony in the state and in civil society is directly connected to harmony and order in each household. In this patriarchal society, slaves, women, and children were found at the bottom of the totem pole, and the public domain was reserved for men, with women relegated to domestic affairs. Present-day scholars refer to this as the “household code,” and in those days it was considered to be essential for the stability of the empire.

From the evidence we find in the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was in clear violation of these principles. Women were among his most loyal followers. The writer of the gospel of Mark places Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, Salome, and many other women who provided for him in Galilee, present at the crucifixion, from which the male disciples had apparently fled. According to the writers of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, these women were the first to get the news of the resurrection and also the commission to inform Peter and the disciples. The writer of Luke gives Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, the status of a prophet with her inspiring canticle that we now call the Magnificat. The same writer reports that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna and many other women provided for Jesus and the Twelve out of their own resources. He also gives the example of the hospitality of the sisters Martha and Mary. The Gospel of John has Jesus engaging in a long discourse with the woman from Samaria and championing the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned. The writer of John elaborates on the story of Mary and Martha with the raising of their brother Lazarus from the dead and the dinner that they later gave for Jesus prior to his last Passover. He also adds Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the women at the cross, and he has Mary Magdalene as the person to whom Jesus first appeared after the resurrection.

The prominent role of women carried over into the middle third of the first century, when the Way of Jesus was still essentially a Jewish sect. In the Acts of the Apostles, the writer has Peter sheltered at the house of the mother of John Mark after he was delivered from prison, and he speaks of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi and her inviting Paul and his companions to stay in her home. He writes of Priscilla and her husband Aquila as sheltering Paul in Corinth and of later traveling with him to Ephesus. These two were later shown to have instructed a new convert in the Way, so as to clear up his confusion.

This role of women was further attested to in the authentic letters of Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 10, he gives prominence to Chloe, a Christian leader in either Corinth or Ephesus, and in Chapter 11 he speaks of women who prophesy, that is, brings messages from God. In Chapter 16 he sends greetings from Aquila and Priscilla along with the members of the church in their house in Ephesus. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Chapter 3, we find his famous admonition, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In Chapter 16 of the letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to “Phoebe, a minister in the church at Cenchreae …for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well, to Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life.” He also greets Mary, “who has worked very hard among you” and Andronicus and Junia, “my compatriots who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” In addition, he greets Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis “who has worked hard in the Lord,” and Rufus “and greet his mother – a mother to me also,” and finally “Julia, and Nereus and his sister.” There can be no doubt about the prominence of women in the churches of Paul.

Developments in the last third of the century saw the deaths of Peter and Paul and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Church began to receive wider public notice. At the same time, Christians began to be excluded from the synagogues and thus began to lose the “cover” that had been provided by Judaism, which had a dispensation from pagan practices in the Empire and was allowed to exist as a separate religion. As the Church emerged as a new religion, it began to draw criticism from the pagan communities on the grounds that the Christians met in secret and were rumored to be cannibals, eating flesh and drinking blood. Because they referred to each other “brother” and “sister,” they were rumored to be involved in incestuous relationships. Therefore, it is not surprising that increasing efforts began on the part of Christians to be seen as compatible with the existing social mores and to show respect for the traditions of the Greco-Roman society in which they were embedded and in which they wanted to expand. The prominent role of women in the Church became a casualty of this assimilation process.

Evidence of the suppression of the role of women can be seen in the post-Pauline Epistles. This can be seen especially in the letter to the Ephesians, thought to have been written after the year 80, and the pastoral letters, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, thought to have been written after the year 90. In Ephesians, women are told to be subject to their husbands because “the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church.” In the 2nd Chapter of 1 Timothy the author says, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” The author of 2 Timothy warns people of false teachers in Chapter 2: “for among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” In Titus older women are told “to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink,” and the young women to be “submissive to their husbands so that the word of God may not be discredited.” Another noteworthy example of this is the infamous post-Pauline insertion in the 14th Chapter of 1 Corinthians: “… women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” All of this denigration of women is in stark contrast to the conditions in the previous third of the century.

Things were to get worse. In his recent book, Robert Blair Kaiser, reviews some of the sayings of some Fathers and Doctors of the Church:

For Saint Jerome, woman was “the devil’s gateway, a dangerous species, a scorpion’s dart.” To Saint John Damascene, woman was “a sicked she-ass, a hideous tapeworm, the advanced post of hell.” Saint Thomas Aquinas believed “woman is misbegotten and defective.” Pope Saint Gregory the Great said that woman’s “use” is twofold: harlotry or maternity.

Such statements today would be fatal for any canonization case, so it can be said that some progress has been made in the rehabilitation of women.

As we Catholics wake up and find ourselves in the 21st-century U.S.A. and realize that our culture is no longer Greco-Roman and that we no longer are constrained by the household code, we might find it appropriate to reconsider which third of the first century we should try to emulate. We don’t know much about the development of the liturgy of the Eucharist, except that it took place mainly in private homes. It would be hard to imagine that women would not have organized at least some of these celebrations of the Eucharist. The present conditions regarding the ministry of women are at odds with the culture of the United States. Just as the early Church changed to accommodate itself to the norms of the surrounding society with regard to the position of women, it again finds itself needing to make another accommodation in the opposite direction. Contrary to the earlier change, which came from the top down, the present evolution is more likely to come from the bottom up. What the configuration of the American Church will look like after this has been accomplished is anybody’s guess.