I’m fifty-three; I’ve been married for more than twenty years, and we’ve done our best to raise three children. I’ve been a Catholic since 1997; as I’ve moved in and beyond different Catholic communities, I’ve experienced different perspectives on men and women, on marriage. The roles of women seem to be a flash point in many Catholic communities, whether these groups are ultra-traditional and fighting for a return to more traditional roles, or ultra-liberal and still on the revolution train, and every iteration in between.
So, I suppose it is an important question: why is everyone so very sensitive—including myself, at certain points in my life?
Marriage as a sign
I think there are very good reasons for this sensitivity; the roles of men and women in marriage must be a hinge or support point of Christian community. Indeed, marriage and family are highly political: if the Church and the world both start in the family, the organization of that family has tremendous influence.
Also, a marriage is meant as a sign for Christ and His Church, for the love of the Trinity; the sexual act is a nexus of the physical and spiritual; phenomenologically, the attacks upon marriage and the family, both from powers and principalities and human forces, indicate that the family, beginning in marriage, is much more than preference—it is the heart of human civilization, and one nexus of God meeting persons.
Most of us first know God in the persons of our parents: they show us this love in their marriage as well in their roles as individual parents. In my lifetime of experience it seems true that a father’s leadership in spiritual practices has a tremendous influence on a child’s later faith, and this leadership goes so far as to make a facade of faith one of the strongest “lessons” for a child to drop faith. A mother’s influence: many, many people will express the beginning of their personal interest in the faith, their heart’s movement, to their mother’s model and encouragement.
This doesn’t mean that children without ideal fathers, or fathers at all, or mothers, are doomed—but they will sustain a wound requiring grace and incarnational healing to overcome. Therefore, there is a layered order inherent in marriage: biologically, socially, spiritually, these human orders echoing the relationship of Christ and the Church, the relationships of love in the Trinity.
The more subtle, implicit lesson about God from the family is the marriage itself; this is a sign both for the children and for the outside world: it is a sign, as St. Paul says, of Christ’s love for His Church. John Paul II, in Dignitatis Muleris, said:
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.
Two issues must be understood before particular judgments about how this should happen on a day-to-day basis in particular families as a sign for those around them, children or community. First, the fundamental anthropology of a woman versus a man, because upon this definition rests any conclusions we can make: only when the essential nature of a being is understood can we make judgments about particular actions and or details. Second, the arrangement of St. Paul’s passage here in Ephesians 5: what is he saying within the context of the argument itself?
Equality and hierarchy
By nature, are men and women equal in dignity before God? I mean not an equality of “sameness” but rather of essence. Are both sexes equally endowed with the image of God? Are each capable of a personal relationship with the Lord? Are each fundamentally responsible for responding to grace?
I think the answers are clearly “yes” on all counts. It is worthwhile to note, however, that this fundamental equality in nature is not a Western pagan idea; rather, the early philosophers played with the ideas that women were not capable of the highest practical rationality (that of political prudence), nor does it seem they were thought capable of contemplation either. This is the highest human activity according to Aristotle, due to the erroneous assumption that women had an inferior ability to moderate their emotions. Therefore, women were not thought equal companions to men, leading to the allowance of male homosexuality as a “more fitting, higher form of love between equals.” Likewise, Cicero never spoke of friendship between a man and a woman, because it is implicit in his Greek philosophical foundation that women cannot be as comprehensively virtuous as men.
Women were thought even to be the completely passive, surrogate element in the foundations of life, conception, which is a fundamental human power: the power to pass on life. This all places women, in the Western collective history, as a secondary essence, without rational or conceptual authority. I believe this was partially driven by the Aristotelian concept that where we see more than one thing we encounter hierarchy.
The Christian understanding of the Trinity, an apparent paradox to human reason, counters this idea of “differences necessarily mean hierarchy” at the very source. And the Judeo-Christian understanding of women versus men—in comparison to the whole of early Western philosophy and faith—is revelatory. Fundamentally, though, the order in a marriage cannot both follow God’s order and dehumanize or infantilize anyone. It must reveal and uplift that which God has created, individual souls with equal dignity, the chance for each to have authority in proper measure, because to be an author is to give life, which is one of the fundamental elements of being imago Dei.
In this reality of imago Dei, Jewish tradition seems, from Genesis, to counter the pagan ideas of “human degrees of essential rationality and equality” from the beginning. God creates both sexes directly, and asks of each obedience to His law. And each are punished, held responsible, and the corrective punishment for the woman is the rule of the man over her. This tells us that the original state of perfection was not one of political hierarchy between them, but a relationship of unity and companionship: love and friendship, which can only happen between those who have been given a certain equality.
Thus, men and women are complementary iterations of the same essence, and pace Aristotle, they can be equal and yet different. The actions and words of Christ in terms of the women in His life also speak volumes about the essences of men and women. In a culture hostile to feminine involvement in religious or public matters, He often spoke directly to them, related to them much as He did the men he encountered, held them accountable in the same way, and even chose one as His mother and one (in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas) as the “apostle to the apostles”. He spoke of no marriage in heaven, indicating individual souls in direct relation to the Trinity, rather than women as relating to Him only through a man.
St. Paul also indicates this radical equality in the Body of Christ:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:27-28)
All of this indicates the way God orders us: each as His children, in unity, in an essential equality.
Submission and marriage
Why do I spell out the obvious here? Because this is the context in which St. Paul’s statements about submission must be made: the submission of a wife is not an essential submission, one that comes from her personhood, or even from her womanhood. Not all women are submissive to all men. It is a particular submission in a certain relationship, and so it has a special, limited reason.
Furthermore, both men and women have parts of their lives, responsibilities, areas of authority not directly part of their role in marriage. Even in traditional medieval Christian communities, as Regine Pernoud shows conclusively in Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, women (including married women) held great authority in political and social life. There are also many saints who held authority in areas beyond their marriages: The mother of St. Therese of Liseux ran a successful lace business; St. Gianna Molla was a doctor; there are queens and artists, musicians, teachers, and the list goes on.
As Dorothy Sayers stated in “Are Women Human?” a woman, as a fully human person, cannot be limited to one or two roles in life, or treated as a child without full agency, without the opportunity to be “life-giving.” God gave women gifts, abilities, calls—similar to men—in various areas, and St. Edith Stein calls for women to bring the feminine genius into all areas of life.
A Christian marriage, nonetheless, seems to create a special sign, a stage space, so to speak, a certain drama in which something slightly different is played out. It is a dynamic reality, not a static sign. Christ first sets that stage by reminding us of the state of perfection in Genesis: the two are one flesh, in this life. Marriage is a sacrament, a sign, a nexus of nature and super-nature.
John Paul II speaks of this beautifully as he relates that the masculine and feminine physiques are also signs of the complementarity of marriage, the perpetual “overcoming of original solitude.” And implicit in this unity and complementarity of physical and emotional, mental, and spiritual, is the definition of the sexes as fundamentally equal in essence—for that which is essentially unequal cannot be yoked together in unity, in “one flesh.” A man cannot marry a sheep; we also recoil at the idea of child marriage.
Marriage requires rational consent, an indication of this fundamental dignity and equality between man and wife, the fundamental agency and authority of both over their own persons. The sign, the drama of marriage is where a unity of the flesh is achieved, but it goes farther: eros is meant to be expanded to other forms of love, such as family love and friendship, but also selfless love, agape. John Paul II speaks of this fundamental “gift of the self” as signified on the lower level by the very physiques of men and women, and signified on a higher level by children and family life, and over a lifetime, that selflessness required for a long-lasting marriage.
Christianity also raises marriage to the sign of sacrament because it deals with eternal souls, and also because it is a sign of supernatural forms of love: to the children of a marriage, the first lessons in love are given within the home, from the marriage itself. They are then tilled soil ready to receive the supernatural analogues of these love: the eros of God, the family of the Church, the friendship with Our Lord, all made possible by the supernatural agape of Christ on the Cross, a selfless love we are meant to embody for others as part of Christ’s Body.
Therefore, any submission in Christian marriage must be understood within this structure of essential agency, authority within one’s own person, equality and dignity, and the call for each soul to a supernatural life of selfless love. The marriage, like the Church, is a sign of the servant economy of Christ, that “right-side up” kingdom as opposed to the “domination” that runs the world. Submission, then, is a dynamic, ever-flowing movement, a perpetual gift of one soul, one authority to another, and back again. One must first have something to submit; one must first have a self, an authority, out of which to love and to sacrifice as Christ did.
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”
Here, then, we turn to the second important issue to understand before we can make particular judgments about how submission in marriage is lived out: the arrangement of St. Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians. St. Paul is speaking, in Chapter 5, of how those within Christ’s Body should relate. He then turns, and states, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Many people could read this as the end of the first section, with the next starting with “”Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord.” However, if one reads the section “Submit to one another” as the generic “submit,” then the next passages are species of submission: wives have one kind, and the husband another kind.
“To submit” or “to regard” or “to respect” all have similar meanings, perhaps getting at the original language: to allow oneself to be under another’s authoritative gaze. This seems to explain St. Paul’s directly following ideas of the husband nourishing, cherishing the wife. The key definition to unpack, then, is Christian authority. Unlike a worldly understanding of authority as rule-giving and domination, Christ tells us quite clearly that it is about service. True, life-giving authority is exercised in deep humility, in the washing of another’s feet. “Do not rule as the Gentiles do, dominating each other; you lower yourselves to the role of servant,” Christ tells his astonished disciples, those who wished for the position of greatness, of domination, at Christ’s right hand. Christ’s question, “Can you drink the cup I will drink?” indicates the definition of the great in the Kingdom of Heaven: it is the epitome of selfless love, a deep pouring out of the self in humility, for the good of the other.
Thus, the husband’s submission is quite literally a lowering of the self into a position of servitude, and the wife is to regard this, to respect it, to accept it and receive it as a means to be cherished and nourished and empowered in the faith. In turn, her regard and respect for his humility and his gift of self is empowering to him, and answers the deep call in his nature to be heroic. She must allow him to serve her, she must respect and respond to any legitimate, moral way he does this. This also answers the call in her nature to be able to feel secure to nurture others.
Therefore, what does this look like in real life? I believe that this is going to be different in each marriage, because marriages are between individuals, not stereotypes. And there are different stages of life that a marriage must adapt to as well as individual needs, strengths and weaknesses, and various crises.
However, there are some general marks of this mutual submission: again, the father is the spiritual leader. He will set the tone with the help of his wife, and though they must make spiritual decisions together, his witness will generally be one that is more a bridge for the children into their own independent lives; he will be the proto-father for the Father, just as the mother can be the prototype for the action of the Holy Spirit, or the tenderness of God, and of course, a link to the role of the Theotokos in the lives of the children. The spousal mutual self-gift, regard, submission (one accepting the service of the other, the other given regard in decisions in appropriate areas) is the most powerful witness to their children and the outside community.
Does this mean that a wife has to leave all money matters in her husband’s hands? Or that she should never work outside the home? Or that the woman has no authority over issues at work or in her own work at home with the children? Or over her own bodily needs and what she should do health-wise? These are questions that the Church wisely does not answer, because they are too particular. Neither should other, lesser voices seek to claim ethical and moral and dogmatic authority over others in these areas. This is best left to the spouses themselves and at times of need, counselors, spiritual directors, and pastors, who should refer to the Magisterium.
It seems to me that better questions (leading to principles of action in particular situations) for husbands and wives are, “How can I best act out selfless love in whatever situation we find ourselves?” and “How can I best serve you and regard your gift of self so that you may one day be unified with the Lord?” and “How might I respect your area of authority (servanthood)?” Then, each is loving God through submission to the other, and as St. Augustine says, in the case of a holy, complete mutual submission—different, but equal—that is love of God in action, “Do what you will.”
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