Part 5: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 5 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

Last week we began our exploration of the teachings of Holy Scripture, the Word of God, on the nature and dignity of men and women, and the relationship between them in God's plan. Needless to say, however, the fall of the first parents of the human race into sin did a marvelous job of messing things up! Pope St. John Paul II summed up the situation in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women):

Therefore, when we read in the biblical description the words addressed to the woman [after the fall], "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16), we discover a break and a constant threat [to the woman] precisely in regard to the "unity of the two" which corresponds to the dignity of the image and likeness of God in both of them. But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of "being a sincere gift" and therefore of living "for" the other: "he shall rule over you." This "domination" includes the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and woman possess in the "unity of the two": and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman.

In other words, domineering or tyrannical "rule" of men over women (Gen 3:16) was not something ordained by our Creator: it is a result of the fall of humanity into sin, and therefore a corruption of God's plan.

On the other hand, according to St. Paul, God has revealed in the Genesis story that he has ordained for men a certain leadership role (I Cor 11:3, 8, 12; Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; cf. I Tim 2:11-15 and I Cor 14:33-40): because Adam was created first, and Eve was created both "from" him and "for" him, men are meant to exercise leadership as loving "head" of both the family and the community of worship. This is far too big of an issue for us to unpack here; but for now we can say that even if St. Paul was right about this, he cannot have meant that husbands were to exercise sinful "domination" over their wives, which would clearly violate Genesis 3:16. Biblical scholar Thomas Schreiner helps us understand a bit of what St. Paul meant in I Cor 11:

In I Cor 11:8-9, Paul reflects on the narrative in Genesis 2, for in I Cor 11:8 he observes that man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Then in verse 9 he declares, "For indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake." How do we explain Paul's words in this verse? I think it is quite likely he was reflecting on the word "helper" in Genesis 2:18, 20. We know the creation account in Genesis 2 was in his mind, and the notion that woman was created "for the man's sake" is almost certainly a Pauline commentary on the word "helper" [NB see last week's article on the meaning of this word "helper," ezer, in biblical Hebrew]. The woman was created for Adam's sake to help in ruling the world for God's glory. Such an interpretation of I Corinthians 11:9 fits the context of that chapter nicely, since man is designated here as the "head" of the woman (v.3).

We shall return to these issues later in this series. Suffice it to say for now that even St. Paul's understanding of male "headship" in the family and in the community of faith is certainly not meant to be a licence for men to tyrannize over women.

Let's also note the subtlety of what is being said to us in Genesis (and in St. Paul in I Cor 11 too). Woman is in a position with respect to man of derived equality, by God's creative act. In other words, the woman derives her physical being originally from the man (Gen 2:21-22), and even her generic name from the man, according to the story (Gen 2:23), yet she is of the same fundamental nature as the man ("bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," Gen 2:23), fashioned in the "image and likeness of God" (Gen 1:27) as fully and equally human.

If all this seems paradoxical to us, we need to remember that the very same principle is found in the mystery of the Holy Trinity: the divine Son is in an eternal relationship of "derived equality" with respect to the person of the Father, from whom the Son eternally proceeds, for he shares the same divine nature as the Father; and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet he too is fully and equally divine. We cannot claim entirely to comprehend this mystery, except to say that somehow the principle of "derived equality" in God's own nature has its creaturely reflection and analogue in the origin of the female from the male at the beginning of the human race, when God the Holy Trinity made them male and female in his own image. Somehow, "derived equality" is part of the mystery of what it means for men and women to be made in the "image" of a Trinitarian God. Moreover, just as tyrannical domination does not ever happen in the eternal communion of love among the persons of the Blessed Trinity, so it has no place in what St. John Paul II called "the unity of the two," the unity of the man and woman in God's plan as they live out the divine "image" in their lives.

It may be that all this sheds light on another verse in I Corinthians 11 which most of us find pretty hard to swallow. I am referring to I Corinthians 11:7: "for a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man." Yikes! - is St. Paul really teaching that women are only created in the image of God in some remote and secondary way, and that only men can fully reflect the glory of God? No, I am pretty sure that is not what he meant. It all comes back to the principle of "derived equality" that we previously discussed, for in the very next verse (I Cor 11:8) St. Paul tells us where he is getting all this: from the Genesis story, in which woman was created "from" man. Catholic theologian Manfred Hauke has written:

Even when woman is regarded as "the glory of man" and not, directly as "the image and glory of God," a lesser degree of being-in-the-image-of God is not thereby asserted of her. Christ too is described in the Pauline letters as "image" or "glory" of the Father [II Cor 4:4; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15; cf. Heb 1:3], yet that in no way diminishes his equality with God [see Phil 2:6]. The same applies in the subordinate position of Christ to the Father [I Cor 11:3, 15:28]. (Women in the Priesthood?, p. 349)

In other words, Christ's person as eternally derived and proceeding from the Father, and his subordinate position in God's plan of salvation as the one "sent" from the Father, does not seem in any way to contradict his eternal divine equality of nature with the Father. In the very mystery of the nature of God himself, therefore, the fact that persons are equal in nature and dignity does not mean that they are also completely identical and interchangeable in position or role. Again, more on this later in this series, when we consider to roles of men and women in the family and in the Church.

Back to our discussion of the Old Testament: Manfred Hauke mentions a curious aspect of Mosaic Law:

Moving on through the Old Testament, we find some (to our ears) rather strange teaching that during menstruation and childbearing women were regarded as 'unclean,' but this is "not because those processes were seen as sinful or as the work of demons, but because they entail being excluded from worship. Something similar applies ... in the case of certain processes that occur in men [see Lev 15:1-18]. Not only women, but also men (and priests) are accordingly excluded at times from worship [for being "unclean"]. The anthropological basis is the same ... for both sexes, namely, the strong implicatedness of the soul in the relevant physical processes, which results in a certain indisposition to be wholly involved in worship." (Hauke, p. 209)

In other words, immersion in bodily processes or excessive emission of bodily fluids, for both men and women - and even direct contact with a dead body - were held to be earthly distractions from worshipping the transcendent, heavenly God.

Another strange aspect of the Mosaic Law was the treatment of female captives in war. Unlike most armies in the ancient world, soldiers and officers in the Israeli army were not allowed to take female slaves as concubines from among their captives. Rape and abandonment of female captives was forbidden too. If the Israeli soldier wanted to mate with a female captive, he had to marry her (and could do so even against her will), and then if he was displeased with her he could not sell her as a slave, because she was his legitimate wife. The Mosaic Law stipulated that if he wanted to end the marriage, then he had to let her go, because he had "humiliated her," the implication being that he had done so by forcing her to marry him in the first place (Dt 21:10-14).

In many respects, the dignity and equal value of women is on display in the Old Testament. Scripture passages that command children to honor their parents always state that they must honor both father and mother (Ex 20:12). In addition, a child could be punished for cursing either his father or mother (Ex 21:17), and the book of Proverbs warns against ignoring or despising both mothers and fathers (Prov 23:22). Manfred Hauke offers yet more evidence in this regard:

The fundamental duties and blessings of [God's] Covenant [with Israel] also apply to women. Together with their husbands, they attend the reading of the Law, and observe in like manner the Sabbath and take part in festive ceremonies ....

That the female sex is by no means regarded as incapable of having a say in religious affairs is shown above all by the female prophets. Huldah, for example, plays an important role in the dissemination of the book of the law that was found in 622 BC. Without her God-empowered contribution, the five books of Moses (the core of the Old Testament) would probably not exist as we know them today. The king respectfully asks Huldah for her views on the matter, although such highly significant figures as Jeremiah and (probably) Zephaniah are numbered among her contemporaries.

Another important personality is Deborah, the "Joan of Arc" of the Old Testament. In difficult times, she guides the destiny of Israel and successfully concludes a defensive war. Her song of victory is regarded as one of the pearls of Hebrew poetry. (Hauke, p. 210-211)

Nor should we forget the role that Esther played, the young Hebrew woman who became Queen of Persia, in rescuing the Jews in exile from an imperial edict of mass slaughter. This became the foundation of the Jewish feast of Purim. And this list of Old Testament heroines is not exhaustive.

At the same time, in Israel women were excluded from the offices of priest and Levite, despite the fact that in most of the surrounding pagan cultures of the ancient East priestesses were nothing unusual. Leadership in worship in general was a male preserve, as we see in the layout of the Temple in Jerusalem itself, in which women were not permitted to enter the inner court reserved for men, and the innermost sanctuary was reserved for the priests. The leadership of worship in the synagogues was also reserved for men. Exclusion from the priesthood, at least, may have something to do with the fact that women were much more frequently in a state of ritual "uncleanness" than men, due to their natural processes of menstruation and giving birth (as we previously discussed). There is also, however, a typological foreshadowing, in the figure of the Old Testament High Priest, of the great High Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ - we shall need to consider this, too, later in this web series.

With regard to a woman's role in the family structure according to the Old Testament, it is important to note that the ideal wife described in the book of Proverbs is not someone whose duties and activities are restricted solely to the home, or solely to childbearing and childrearing. As important as faithful motherhood certainly was to the ancient Jews, they recognized that God had given many other gifts to women as well:

She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. ... She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. ... She opens her hands to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. ... She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. ... She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. (See all of Proverbs 31:10-31)

To sum up: in the Old Testament we find a somewhat paradoxical teaching about the dignity of women. There seems to be something half-baked and incomplete about it all. The leadership roles in Jewish religious and family life were given by God to men, but a fundamental equality of man and woman as equally made in the "image of God" was also clearly asserted, and the manifold gifts that God has given to women were praised and honored. Men are never to exercise tyrannical "rule" over women. But the Old Testament fails to take up and develop the fact that women were the very last creatures that God made in the ascending order of the six days of creation. In Genesis chapter one, God's creative work proceeds from the lowest to the highest life forms. This would seem to imply that woman is the pinnacle and crown of God's creation. It is only in the New Testament, and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church that this aspect of the mystery of the dignity of women finally will be unveiled.

Next Time: Women and Men in the New Testament

Follow the series at

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

You might also like...

Freedom must always be bounded by charity, and it is simply not charitable to men to have to have their chastity assaulted whenever they walk down the street in the summertime.
Women are called today to turn the world upside down. What does that mean?
We need to remember that God's plan of humanizing the world through sanctified femininity is not confined to those with a vocation to marriage - and those who stay at home to raise the children.