Thursday, April 28, 2016
Mutual submission of spouses: coherent, Pauline, true?
Among other issues raised by Pope Francis' Exhortation Amoris laetitia is the question of family life and the complementarity of the sexes. As I have pointed out on this blog, Pope Francis seems to have a relatively robust notion of the specialisation of gender roles, a subject Pope St John Paul II was less willing to broach. I have noted on this blog the strange position of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which brings up complementarity when discussing homosexual relationships. These lack 'genuine complementarity', the Catechism tells us, and therefore lack something essential to marriage. Something so essential, in fact, that its own discussion of marriage doesn't even mention it. D'oh.
Pope Francis nevertheless pays lip-service to feminism, and says that 'patriarchy', whatever he means by that, is wrong. More substantially, in section 154 he repeats in summary form the argument made by Pope St John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieres dignitatem 24, that St Paul in Ephesians wants each spouse to submit to the other (Pope Francis refers in fact to a 'Catechesis' John Paul II gave in 1982, but the argument is the same). This is something, on the face of it, which is problematic in Amoris laetitia, not because it contradicts Pope St John Paul II, but because it agrees with him.
Pope St John Paul II says very little about what 'mutual submission' actually means. There may be a 'pious reading' which would allow us to say that it says nothing in tension with previous treatments, but I want to explore the theory as standardly elaborated and understood by neo-conservative Catholic writers, of whom there are a great many. The problems with their notion of 'mutual submission' can be divided into three categories. Does it make sense? Is it the teaching of St Paul? And, Is it the teaching of the Church?
Mutual submission is a theological riposte to traditional views of male headship of the family. There are good, bad, and indifferent versions of such views, but what they have in common is that according to them the husband has some form of authority over the wife, which the wife does not have over him. There is an asymmetry in the relationship, and the family has a hierarchical structure. Instead of clarifying the nature, the limits, the purpose, or the motivation of this authority, or investigating the corresponding expectations and rights of the wife vis a vis the husband, the 'mutual submission' approach to this question is to deny the asymmetry. The most natural way to do this would be simply to say that there is no submission of the wife to the husband: there is no relationship of power or authority, and no hierarchy, within marriage. This would be the view, I suppose, of most secular people. Instead, the 'mutual submission' suggestion is that there is a relationship of power or authority, but that it goes both ways. The wife submits to the husband, and the husband submits to the wife.
At any rate, this is the language which is used, on the basis of Ephesians 1:21, where St Paul writes 'And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ', which is used by the partisans of this view as an interpretive key to understand the numerous passages in the New Testament which urge wives to submit to their husbands. Yes!, people say, wives should submit to their husbands, but look at Eph 1:21: husbands should submit to their wives too!
It may be objected, however, that the attempt to establish a position on authority within the family which is different from the secular view that there is no authority in the family, at any rate between husband and wife, fails, because it is impossible to give coherent substance to such a position. What does it mean to submit to the authority of a person who, in exactly the same way, is submitted to your own authority? I might have authority over you as the Secretary of a club you have joined, and you may have authority over me as a traffic warden over the driver of a car, but we can't have authority over each other of exactly the same kind. It just doesn't make sense. Or rather: the only sense which can be made is that the clashing authorities cancel each other out.
The proponents of this view might reply that it means that the two people locked in this Escher-like paradox of mutual subordination should always be ready to give way to the other's desires, as opposed to working out their differences by some form of bargaining. The two little love-birds, trapped forever in the closing pages of a sentimental novel, should, on this view, be constantly saying to each other 'no, dearest, we must do what you want!' Whenever they have divergent desires or opinions, which will be a lot of the time if they are rational, if they are to come to any decisions at all, they must do so in favour of whichever has best mastered the art of emotional manipulation: of conveying a desire without appearing to insist upon it. If that's not what the proponents of this view have in mind, then what it really comes down to is saying that the bargaining of the secular model should be tempered by charity and self-restraint, which may be an improvement upon secular practice but does not restore to it any kind of legitimate authority. If Scripture tells us that there is legitimate authority within marriage, then, on this view, Scripture is wrong.
So the next question is, does Scripture, and specifically St Paul in Ephesians, tell us that there is legitimate authority within marriage, of one spouse over the other? The answer of course is that this message is conveyed emphatically over and over again, not only in Ephesians, but in Colossians, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and the Letter to Titus: I've listed the passages here. Ephesians 1:21 is the only apparent qualification to the principle that husbands have authority over wives and wives should be subordinate to husbands, and not the other way round. So what does Eph 1:21 mean?
A comment on a recent post this blog suggested that it is a general remark to the effect that some Christians be subject to other Christians, not only within marriage but in the household (children to parents and slaves to masters) and in society (everyone else to the Emperor). Given the structure of the letter, this suggestion makes sense.
An alternative view, which is somewhat closer to the exegesis of Mulieres dignitatem, and has the support of some Fathers of the Church, is that it is not legal submission which is at issue here, but the kind of submission made by Christ when he washed the disciples' feet. Christ did not give up his authority in this action, but illustrated the spirit which should animate it, a spirit of service. This service is proper to all Christians, who should seek to serve all, whether they have legal authority or not. So, far from being incompatible with authority, such service may be performed through the exercise of authority. So St Jerome tells us, of this verse:
Let bishops hear this, let priests hear, let every rank of learning get this clear: In the church, leaders are servants. Let them imitate the apostle...The difference between secular rulers and Christian leaders is that the former love to boss their subordinates whereas the latter serve them. We are that much greater if we are considered least of all.” (Migne PL 26:530A, C 653-654).
(I owe this quotation to a short book on this subject by Robert Sungenis, Does St. Paul Teach Mutual Submission of Spouses?, which can be bought here and is online here. He puts a number of handy quotations together, particularly from the Fathers.)
Both interpretations make sense, and it isn't necessary to decide between them here, since both messages are implicit and explicit in Scripture in other passages. It is clearly the teaching of St Paul that Christians should submit to legitimate authority, and it is clearly also his teaching that leaders should exercise authority in the interests of the community they are leading, and not for their own benefit alone. It is on the basis of the second reading, perhaps, that a 'pious reading' of Mulieres dignitatem could be constructed, to the effect that all St John Paul II really meant (when read in light of the tradition) is that, like all Christian rulers, husbands should use their authority in service to the community they govern. In any case, what is not the teaching of St Paul is the idea that wives in some sense have an authority over their husbands, such as rivals or cancels out the authority of the husband over the wife.
The final question is of the teaching of the Church. Naturally the Church does not have the authority to overturn Scripture, and we find the teaching of Scripure accepted very clearly, and applied to modern conditions, in the Papal Magisterium.
The locus classicus on this subject is Pope Pius XI's 1930 Encyclical Casti conubii, but Leo XIII (in his 1890 Encylcical Arcanum) wrote in the same vein on the subject, as did the darling of the liberals, Pope John XXIII, in his 1959 Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, which was written after Vatican II had been summoned. Bl. John XXIII wrote:
53. Within the family, the father stands in God's place. He must lead and guide the rest by his authority and the example of his good life.
54. The mother, on the other hand, should form her children firmly and graciously by the mildness of her manner and by her virtue.
55. Together the parents should carefully rear their children, God's most precious gift, to an upright and religious life.
56. Children must honour, obey, and love their parents. They must give their parents not only solace but also concrete assistance if it is needed.
This nicely illustrates the point I have made on this blog before, that the doctrine of male headship does not deprive the wife of authority: her authority over the household, rather, derives from the authority of the husband, even when, as may commonly be the case in practice, it is has more frequent practical application.
What can be said about the rejection of the authority of the husband over the wife in Mulieres dignitatem and Amoris laetitia? I have noted the direction a 'pious reading' might come from, but I do not want to say that the neo-conservative reading of Mulieres dignitatem is unreasonable in itself: it is, for example, consistent with what St John Paul II said in various sermons and speeches. What is unreasonable, for a Catholic, is the acceptance of a teaching at variance with the teaching of the whole Church. My question for the neo-cons at this point is simply this: can you explain why it is more scandalous, more disloyal to the Papacy, or in any way more theologically problematic, to question the teaching of an Apostolic Letter and an Apostolic Exhortation, one by a canonised Pope, rather than of three Encyclicals, one by a beatified Pope?
Encyclicals carry more magisterial authority, but this is far less important than the fact that Leo XIII, Pius XI and Bl. John XXIII are reiterating the constant teaching of the Church, the consensus of the Fathers, and the teaching of Scripture, this last both according to its most obvious meaning (a meaning to which feminists ferociously object), and its meaning according to the interpretation given by the tradition of the Church.
The stability of the Ordinary Magisterium on this can be illustrated from the liturgy, itself a 'theological source'. The traditional Nuptial Mass has as its Epistle Ephesians, 5:22-33, missing out 5:21 on 'mutual submission'. Why does it do that? Well, 5:21 has traditionally been seen as the conclusion of the previous section of the letter, a point Robert Sungenis illustrates by reference to St John Chrysostom's Homilies, so it is logical to start the lection with v.22. Accordingly, and without any qualification in terms of 'mutual submission', the lection sets out the teaching of headship as a matter of authority of husband over wife being complemented, not with more authority of the wife over the husband, but by the husband's obligation of love and self-sacrifice to his wife. It begins:
Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body.
Tomorrow I'm going to address another aspect of the neo-conservative reading of Scripture, Genesis 3:16.
I have addressed the question of whether Patriarchy, as understood in Catholic teaching, is oppressive, here.
Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.