At the end of last week, there was a kerfuffle on Twitter, when some Catholic traditionalist men who take themselves very seriously tried to claim that it had always been the teaching of the Catholic Church that it was a sin for married women to work outside the home. This got way more attention than it merited, but my friend Rebecca gave it a good dressing down. Later, I saw a traditionalist man who took himself very seriously, asserting that men also had a right to physically abuse their wives to “discipline” them, and thankfully he got the reaming he deserved. Then later, a particularly obnoxious traditionalist man, one who called himself a “Catholic Revert,” claimed it was a mortal sin for women to deny sex to their husbands “without just reason” which can mean anything at all under the circumstances– and also wondered aloud if women would be judged by God for their husband’s pornography habits. He had several examples on the tip of his tongue of men he claimed he knew who had no choice but to download internet porn because their wives wouldn’t put out.
Someone else in my Twitter feed pointed out that “Catholic Revert” is very close to “Catholic Pervert,” and I can’t really top that.
It would take a million blog posts to fully express my feelings on these issues. I’ll probably churn out at least one more. But I want to take a moment to respond to the last tweet I saw from the Catholic revert before he locked up his account.
The last tweet of his I saw was that verse from Ephesians that all such men have on the tip of their tongues: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” And then he disappeared from the public sphere, with that as his last word.
Misogynists who claim Christianity as their excuse always quote Ephesians just like that. It’s their justification for nearly everything they’d like to do to a woman, their way of laughing off any woman who won’t degrade herself in just the way they’d like. They never go on to the rest of the text where Saint Paul has some words for men; they just quote that line out of context.
For the record, I’d like to copy and paste a much larger passage from the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians. This is from the end of chapter 5 and beginning of 6:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
It should be noted that in the passage previous to this one, Saint Paul warns the Ephesians “ Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” And he goes on from there, telling the Ephesians how to not be impure or greedy. The passage about all submitting to one another is one of the main ways they’re going to bring this about. They are not to buy and sell each other or use each other anymore; instead, they are going to mutually submit in love.
There are really no words for how revolutionary this command is– not for the people who were already oppressed, the people who had no choice to begin with. Paul doesn’t really demand a change of them. Instead, he insists that in order to live moral lives as Christians, oppressors have to stop oppressing.
Saint Paul wasn’t saying anything revolutionary when he told wives to go on being subject. Wives had always been subject. From the beginning of civilization, far more often than not, women belonged to men– it was just a question of which men, and how badly they treated them. Ancient Rome was no different. The revolution of Christianity is in the next verse– telling men that they had to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. No more doing as the Romans do, nor as the rest of the world does. If you are a Christian and you have a wife, you are no longer allowed to treat her as a pet at the best of times and livestock at the worst. You are obligated in Christ love her as your own body and moreso– because Christ sacrificed His body for the Church. And where does that leave the venerable practice of wives submitting to their husbands? It’s been blown completely out of the water. Wives are not property anymore, but persons in a community who all pour themselves out for one another in love.
And the same with the rest of the rules Paul provides. Children are to go on obeying their fathers because they can’t very well do anything else– but now, fathers aren’t to abuse their children anymore. That was new. Children are suddenly declared to be worth as much as their parents, in a society that valued fathers above everyone else. Slaves are to go on being subject to masters as to God, because it’s not as if refusing to do so will change anything. This is ancient Rome. But masters are now required to treat their slaves “the same way,” and to recognize one Master in Heaven. Slaves and Masters are to serve one another and to have the same Master now, if they are Christian. Can there ever really be slaves again in that case? No, Paul didn’t abolish slavery, but his letter to the Ephesians planted a grenade in the very heart of the institution– and in marriages that treat women as slaves, and in abusive relationships with parents.
This passage has been used and quote-mined as a justification for every kind of abuse in the thousands of years since it’s been written, from child abuse to wife beating to arranged marriages to the race-based chattel slavery of the American South. But when we read the whole thing, with an eye to the teachings of Christ, I don’t think it stands up to those interpretations. I don’t think it can.
No, Saint Paul wasn’t a feminist. He wasn’t an abolitionist or a socialist or any kind of ist that fits into our culture easily. He was a stuffy man who lived two thousand years ago, and if I’d met him personally I imagine we would’ve gotten on each other’s nerves. But I believe that Paul was inspired by the Holy Ghost when he wrote his epistles. And I believe that through Paul writing advice to specific communities in a specific culture at one point in history, the Holy Ghost provided a template for a very different society that subverts all kinds of authoritarianism and abuse.
Wherever there is an authentic movement of the Holy Ghost in history, we see men and women, parents and children, people from different classes of society, loving and submitting to one another in a way that is absolutely scandalous to the culture around them. It doesn’t look like any earthly culture we can name, because no earthly culture really perfectly gave itself over to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Plenty have appropriated the Holy Ghost and claimed God as the authority to do what they did. But it doesn’t look like the Middle Ages or the Pilgrims on the Mayflower or the 1950s. It doesn’t look like a battered wife in a modest dress who never contradicts her husband, never says “no” to sex and doesn’t have a paycheck. It certainly doesn’t look like an abusive husband who thinks Saint Paul guaranteed his right to have sex whenever he wants it and slap his wife around.
It looks like Christ.
What Christ looks like manifested in your life and mine is something hard to say. I can’t tell you what it would look like if we really gave ourselves over to the promptings of the Holy Ghost Who is Love and became serious about our practice of Christianity. But I’m sure we would be transformed into Christ and live in a way that was revolutionary and scandalous to our culture. That’s what Christianity is.
And as Christians, that’s what you and I have got to start doing, and repenting of every time we inevitably fail. If we’re serious about Christ, we’ve got to find the way that this radical mutual submission looks in our own lives. We have to find the ways in which we’ve been living as the Romans do, participating in structures of oppression and abuse, and refuse to participate anymore. In every place that society tells us we get to be masters over somebody else, we have to overturn that structure and be servants instead.
I don’t think that’s what the traditionalist Catholic male set wants to hear, but it’s the truth.
(image via Pixabay)