Tradition Unbound: How the Pope Changed The Church’s Theology of Marriage

Tradition Unbound: How the Pope Changed The Church’s Theology of Marriage December 1, 2016


The controversy over the treatment of communion for the divorced and remarried in Amoris Leatitia has been rekindled recently as a result of the publication of five dubia by a group of Cardinals who seem to be concerned that Pope Francis is changing doctrine.

A lot of people seem to be really disturbed and upset by what they see as a discontinuity between the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, and the teaching of Francis in Amoris Leatitia. To Francis’ critics, nothing less is at stake than the authority, continuity and clarity of Church teaching.

Dr. Michael Sirrilla, Professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology, at Franciscan University of Steubenville, echoed a common sentiment, saying, “The grave confusion that has followed Amoris Laetitia involves fundamental goods of the Eucharist, matrimony, and the objective standards of moral good and evil. Historically, a hallmark of Catholic doctrine has been its beautiful precision, directing souls to eternal salvation.” (Quoted from The Catholic Herald)

I’d like to calm all of this down a little, if possible, by drawing an analogy to a similar crisis, now mostly forgotten, that occurred with the publication of Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem. Specifically, I want to talk about the seeming lack of clarity and continuity in the Church’s teaching on the subjugation of women within marriage as this doctrine developed over the course of the 20th Century.

We begin our journey back in 1880 with the publication of Arcanum Divinae by Pope Leo XIII. Here the teaching is presented in its original and traditional form, showing a clear and unambiguous hierarchy of the sexes:

“The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For “the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. . . Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.” (Arcanum Divinae, para 11)

This passage, in this form, would be at home in the modern Christian patriarchy movement. Leo XIII was eager, in other respects, to curtail the excesses of patriarchy. He bemoans forms of male domination in which a “man assumed right of dominion over his wife…while he was himself at liberty “to run headlong with impunity into lust…in house of ill-fame and amongst his female slaves.” He censures the selling of marriageable girls and decries laws that permit fathers to determine their children’s marriages (cf. para 7).

But there’s no question that any man, or woman, would have walked away from a reading of Arcanum Divinae with the sense that male dominion over females was basically ordained by God provided it did not extend to sleeping around, selling them like chattel or putting them to death.

By the time we get to Casti Connubii, published 50 years later in 1930, we can see that the Vatican is grappling, somewhat uncomfortably, with the challenges posed by the emergence of feminism. Pius XI first confirms the traditional teaching, “This order [the order of love] 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.” (Casti Connubii, para 26)

He then goes on, however, to bring added nuance to the doctrine:

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…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… 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 .” (ibid, para 27-28)

Already, we can see that the teaching (which in Arcanum Divinae is very simple and concise) has become more complicated and nuanced. It’s no longer sufficient for husbands to avoid sleeping with the slaves. The claim that wives should be “subject to their husbands in all things” has been softened: a woman does not have to obey commands which are unreasonable or undignified, and she is not to be treated like a minor. She may even, in the case of a negligent husband, assume “his place in directing the family.” More critically, it is now acceptable for cultural forces to dictate, at least partly, the “degree and manner” of a wife’s subjugation.

Pius XI goes on, later in the document, to lament the emancipation of women and the loss of that “honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man…this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.” (ibid, para 74-75)

He does however (it seems to me somewhat grudgingly) admit that social changes have made it necessary to alter the social and economic conditions of married women, (cf. para 77) and in doing so cracks open the door for the more pronounced shifts in doctrine that will take place later in the 20th century.

Clearly, there’s a very high degree of continuity between Arcanum Divinae and Casti Connubii: it can be credibly argued that Pius XI is really doing no more than expanding Leo XIII’s teaching that a wife’s obedience should be not that of “a servant, but as a companion.” Still, there has been a slight shift in tone away from a strictly patriarchal hierarchy of the sexes towards a greater tolerance for feminist ideas.

Now, we roll the clock forward another 50 years. It’s 1981, there’s just been a synod on the family, and John Paul II publishes his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. By this point in the development of the doctrine the teaching is about as clear as mud. The equality of women and men is stressed at length, but the subjugation of women to male headship is simply not discussed. Ephesians 5:22-23 is neither quoted nor analyzed.

Instead of instructing women in obedience, the document addresses the duties of men:

Authentic conjugal love presupposes and requires that a man have a profound respect for the equal dignity of his wife: “You are not her master,” writes St. Ambrose, “but her husband; she was not given to you to be your slave, but your wife…. Reciprocate her attentiveness to you and be grateful to her for her love.” With his wife a man should live “a very special form of personal friendship.” As for the Christian, he is called upon to develop a new attitude of love, manifesting towards his wife a charity that is both gentle and strong like that which Christ has for the Church.” (Familiaris Consortio, para 25)

I was still in diapers when this was published, so I wasn’t there to witness the kerfuffle – however, I’ve known enough elderly conservatives, men who still haven’t recovered from the shock of Vatican II, to know that John Paul II’s silence about wifely obedience did not go unnoticed. I don’t know if anyone published any dubia in which they demanded to know, clearly, yes or no, whether JPII would be willing to affirm the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, and of his predecessors Leo XIII and Pius XI (not to mention Aquinas, Augustine, and above all St. Paul himself) in declaring woman’s natural subjection to man. Perhaps they did, perhaps not. I would, however, bet my left earlobe that this question was put pointedly and repeatedly in conservative Catholic publications at the time.

I don’t know how John Paul II answered his critics in 1981, but with the publication of Mulieris Dignitatem, seven years later, the picture started to clear. And the clearer picture that emerged diverged significantly from all that had come before.

(To be continued…)


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