A Traditionalist’s Dilemma: What to Do When the Pope Goes Feminist?

My love for John Paul II is only exceeded by my need for his apostolic authority, not only when convenient, but when inconvenient as well. Lately it has been most inconvenient.

Long ago upon leaving our Protestantism behind, my minister husband and I agreed that Jesus, the Truth, who made unity for his followers his highest priority (John 17), would certainly have left on this muddled earth an authority to keep Truth an available certainty, and to make unity among Christians possible—something that as antinomian Baptists we had come to appreciate as both desirable and possible. In our search we had become charismatics; only an infallible voice could balance our proclivity to our own spiritual lights. We watched in horror as companions in this spiritual adventuring, without a notion of the dangers involved, went off on peculiar, fanatical twists. We nearly had done so ourselves.

The Roman Catholic Church with its claim of the continuous ministry of Jesus Himself through His Vicar loomed like the iridescent Emerald City over the vast, dream-inducing poppy fields of personal revelation. We couldn’t wait to get there. My husband gave up his ministry without a backward look, and we began to experience the richness of what every convert calls “my real home.” Like Dale Vree, we came into the Roman Church “glowing with the certitude that what the Church teaches is correct.” What a relief!

It did occur to us that laying down our spiritual autonomy and submitting to God’s own authority might, in time, mean checking a favorite notion. We agreed that it was precisely our own intuitions and pet theories that were so spiritually perilous, unfailing self-discernment being contrary to reason, and deception being the common lot of religious folks like us. We thought we were prepared to bow gratefully, but now when just such submission is required, how it stings! Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II’s apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”—the very instrument I erroneously supposed would vindicate the unpopular stands my convictions have required—has occasioned a painful re-assessment of those same stands.

Granddaughter of an evangelical Baptist preacher, educated in a Baptist College, with years of charismatic experience, I had quite a set of baggage when I finally entered the Church. I was soon amazed at how eager cradle Catholics were for its Bible contents, not the least part of which was a conviction about what God’s Word said about male-female relationships, marriage, and family. It was strangely relevant timing. The Church was beginning to be embroiled in debate with feminists who rejected the woman’s traditional role as part of an immense hierarchical conspiracy. Gradually, I was able to take what I believed to be the Church’s part, teaching that the Holy Trinity was the model for male-female relationships in marriage: an initiator, the First Person; a Receiver, the Second Person; both united by the Unitive Spirit of Love.

Such a concept led directly to Ephesians 5, “Wives be subject to your husbands as the Lord.” Of course, this took careful handling of the word subject, which I found was not so accurate as submit. Before it was usable, submit also demanded a rigorous semantic defense both in its etymology and in Jesus’ own attitudes, which are described in the Gospel as unremitting submission to his Father.

I had long thought along the lines expressed by Blessed Edith Stein. About the verses in question she writes:

If the man is to be the leader, (“the head”) of his wife—and we can add accordingly, likewise the head of the entire family—in the sense Christ is the head of the Church, so it is the duty of the man to conduct this microcosm of the great Mystical Body in such a way that each of its members may be able to develop his gifts perfectly and contribute to the salvation of the entire body, and that each may attain his own salvation…. If the body rebels against the head, the organism will suffer as much as if the head were to allow the body to atrophy.

From the simple concept that since human beings can do nothing to initiate anything with God, they are only capable of accepting from him, it seemed clear that the polarity thus described could in terms of human sexuality be considered masculine to feminine (not male to female because we are speaking of the spiritual principle that animates sexuality, not of material bodies). As C.S. Lewis has a character argue in That Hideous Strength, “[Confrontation with] the male you could have escaped, for it exists only in the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine to it.”

Following the same line, Genesis 1-3, is a story of two created unions both made in the image and likeness of God. The first is that of the union of man and woman created in the image of the Triune God, a “two in one” but in a deeper sense a “three in one.” Jesus himself said that God joined man and woman (Matthew 19:6), which presents a picture of two opposites joined by a Third, even as the Father and the Son are polar Persons in union by the self-giving of a Third, the Holy Spirit.

And the second created union, that of Godhead joined to Mankind in an inconceivable perfection, was the way things were before the Fall. Here, too, the Holy Spirit is the Unifier who condescends in love to make a Oneness of the opposites, creature and Creator. Such a parallel configuration implies that the relationship of Father to Son, and Godhead to mankind was analogous to the relationship of male to female, who from Carl Jung’s point of view were the primordial pair of irreconcilable opposites. Therefore, before God created male or female there was at the heart of reality a principle of generation and a principle of reception that we humans with our physical perceptions understand as masculine and feminine.

A third aspect of the feminist debate that I was eager to counter was that most distressing misapplication of Scripture, the persistent assertion that the Bible speaks of God as Mother. The importance of the incontrovertible fact that God in His Triune Persons be always considered masculine in relation to us human beings is so overwhelming that in every case the Scriptures rigorously guard this truth. Any use of Holy Scripture to bolster divine motherhood is flagrant disregard of the context. On this issue I went to bat with alacrity.

Isaiah 66:13ff. is the darling of the misquoted Scriptures and is always abbreviated to: “As nurslings you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you.” This, however, is the actual context.

Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream, and you shall suck, you shall be carried on her lap and dangled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

The distinction God places between Himself and Mother Jerusalem is very clear. The same holds true for Isaiah 49:14-15, another favorite used to substantiate God’s motherhood: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even if she forgets you, I will never forget you.” The speaker is Yahweh, the Lord, who in the entire context of Isaiah presents himself as wholly masculine, though with a depth of compassion that surpasses all earthly love, even the love of a mother. Mothers may forget, but the Lord will not forget. In the next chapter, God identifies Himself as husband and father.

Isaiah 46:3-4 is also a standby text for the Mother-God, yet it is unequivocally stated in this passage that the One who carries is masculine!

Hearken to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

The humble submission of the soul “like a child quieted at its mother’s breast” described in Psalm 131 is a beautiful poetic image of peace which—though it has no bearing on the question at hand, being metaphorical—is often cited.

Throughout the Old Testament God speaks about his Fatherhood, his husbandhood, his lover role, and never says, “like a Father,” He says he is the Father—”I am He,” “I am your husband,” “I am your lover.”

Those of us who, like weary combat soldiers, had faced the brunt of the feminist arguments on these matters looked forward to the letter of the Holy Father much as such a contingent looks forward to the air bombardment that will make the way ahead open and safer. When the letter appeared, we found ourselves the ones who needed to retreat.

The papal letter tells us that we are wrong. First, using the Ephesians passage, Pope John Paul II stresses “the innovation of Christ” to a people living in “a traditional way of thinking and acting.” “Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord” is “to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:21) [emphasis in the original].”

The awareness that in marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ,’ and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior, and customs…. All the reasons in favor of the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ ” [Mulieris Dignitatem, 24].

Second, on the Bible’s treatment of sexuality the Holy Father writes: “speaking about Himself, whether through the prophets, or through the Son (cf. Hebrews 1:1, 2) Who became man, God speaks in human language, using human concepts and images…. This characteristic of biblical language—its anthropomorphic way of speaking about god—points indirectly to the mystery of the eternal ‘generating ‘which belongs to the inner life of God. Nevertheless, in itself this ‘generating’ had neither ‘masculine’ nor ‘feminine’ qualities. It is by nature totally divine. It is spiritual in the most perfect way, since ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24) and possesses no property typical of the body, neither `feminine’ nor ‘masculine.’ Thus even ‘fatherhood’ in God is completely divine and free of the ‘masculine’ bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood” (all emphasis is in the original).

Over against all my contrary assertions, Mulieris Dignitatem, 8, states:

It is understandable that the Bible would refer to God using expressions that attribute to him both “masculine” and “feminine” qualities.

We may quote here some characteristic passages from the prophet Isaiah: “But Zion said, [Isaiah 49:14-15 is quoted as above]. And elsewhere [Isaiah 66:13 is quoted as above]… in the Psalms too God is compared to a caring mother: [Psalm 131:2-3 is quoted as above]. In various passages the love of God who cares for his people is shown to be like that of a mother: thus, like a mother God “has carried” humanity, and in particular, his Chosen People, within his own womb; he has given birth to in travail and nourished and comforted it (cf. Isaiah 42:14, 46:3-4).

Disappointment is a weak word to describe my feelings of desolation when I first read the apostolic letter, despite all it contained that was positive and heartening. I wasn’t alone. Donna Steichen went to theologian Richard Roach, S.J., for an explanation of the pope’s ideas of family headship. “[The pope’s] insistence that the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ of both ‘out of reverence for Christ’ has in fact puzzled readers who wonder whether, when authority is in crisis everywhere, the pope too could be denying it.”

Father Roach replied by denying that the Holy Father was dismissing familial authority. “He expects the family to survive and he expects the father to be the head.” The pope, Roach said, simply opposes “the notion, still surviving in some groups, of exploitative or tyrannical male domination. The primary impact of Vatican II is the re-evaluation of authority, of how authority is interpreted and exercised. I think it would cash out in how quasi-familial authority is exercised in religious life. I don’t think there will ever again be the kind of absolute authority that used to exist in religious communities.”

Dr. Ronda Chervin, the one non-feminist on the panel of consultants called by the American bishops for their work on the first draft of a pastoral letter on women, also mentions the pope’s interpretation of St. Paul’s famous passage about the obedience of wives to their husbands (see 30 Days, November 1988). She solves the “controversial issue” by seeing in John Paul’s explanation what St. Paul himself recognized: “The fact that Paul himself saw no contradiction between the husband as head and the mutual subjection of husband and wife.” She ends her comments with: “Role complementarity is not to be done away with in the pope’s teaching, but rather purified through mutual love.”

Dale Vree cries “Ouch” in the National Catholic Register (November 27, 1988), titling his piece, “OK, I had it coming.” He says he had a foreboding that “one day something would come down the pike from the Holy See that I wouldn’t like…. The pope has let loose… and has in effect told me that I am wrong. He says that the words of Ephesians, ‘Wives, be subject… don’t mean what a literal interpretation of them would seem to indicate.”

Well, what’s a loyal Catholic to do? Vree admits his “pet peeve is those who whether from right or left proclaim, Mater, si; Magistra, no (the Church is our mother, but not our teacher)… I could adopt a Buckleyite stance, as summarized by his recent biographer John Judis, and appeal to God’s rather than Rome’s authority. However attractive, if I adopted such a position I might just as well go back to being a Protestant. I could adopt a Curranite view and say that the pope’s teaching isn’t promulgated with infallibility; hence I don’t need to let it bother me. But that argument won’t work.”

For myself, first I argued a bit: But, but, Holy Father, isn’t it possible that the creation of male and female by God is the physical statement of a principle of differentiation among the divine Persons that pinpointed their creativity and ecstatic union which they marvelously share with us humans? When we see it in the flesh we call it “masculine” or “feminine” because we have no vocabulary for the Real Thing.

Then I argued a bit more. Throughout the apostolic letter the Holy Father affirms things which seem to vindicate the masculine-feminine distinction that “we must nevertheless seek in God the absolute model of all ‘generation’ among human beings.” The pope invokes the “spousal love” for His people that seeks constantly to bring them into oneness with Himself. He even writes:

The image and likeness of God in man, created as man and woman (in the analogy that can be presumed between Creator and creature), thus also expresses the unity of the two in a common humanity. This unity of the two, which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion (‘communio‘) [section 7].

Nor has the pope ever done anything to modify Scripture’s persistent figure of God as “He” and mankind as “she.”

All of which lead me to another thought. Perhaps what the pope says about “mutual subjection” is not, after all, so different from my own earlier argument. In order to help his spouse to her fulfillment, a husband must love her as God does—and in this He is subject to God. Both wives and husbands, then, do “mutually submit,” but in a different way, as different as their sexes, both to each other and to God. That is the best I can do so far. I’m still praying, and thinking.

I seem to hear one word, “Wait.” I have not concluded that all my writing and teaching must stop, which was my first impulse. In waiting it may become clear that this issue is not an either—or, but in some way still unclear to me, both—and. I will not, however, teach or write without relying on the pope’s words and directives. Like Dale Vree, I owe the pope’s teaching the “loyal submission of mind and will” spoken of in Lumen Gentium (25).

Perhaps there is some wisdom, after all, in the old chorus I learned in the Baptist Sunday School many years ago:

Trust and obey,

Trust and obey,

For there’s no other way

To be happy with Jesus

Than to trust and obey.

  • Nancy Cross

    At the time this article was published, Nancy Cross lived in Taylor's Falls, Minnesota. Her articles had appeared in Catholic Digest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications.

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