Part 6: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 6 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

So, what does the New Testament add to biblical teaching about men and women in God's plan?

Probably the favorite verse in the New Testament for Liberal Christian Feminists is Galatian 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

This passage certainly implies a fundamental equality of personal worth and dignity among all the followers of Christ. But before we leap to the conclusion that this passage thereby endorses modern, liberal egalitarianism in every respect, we need to pay attention to this verse's wording and context. First, let's look at the actual word that St. Paul used. The word for "one" in Greek that St. Paul employs here (eis) does not mean "equal in all respects," because the same word is used 344 times elsewhere in the New Testament and never means that. In fact, "equal" is not even among the definitions of that word found in standard Greek lexica. Rather, we are all "one" in Christ Jesus in having one common Savior, and in being saved by him on the same basis: that is, by his free grace, received through repentance, faith, and Baptism. Nothing in the wording of this passage states that men and women are to be considered equal in the sense of "interchangeable in every social role."

The context of Galatians 3:28 conveys the same message. Saint Paul is not discussing the social roles of men and women here. He is writing about the process of salvation. He is saying that everyone, no matter who they are, and no matter on which side they fall of the social distinctions of the ancient world (male-female, slave-free, Jew-Gentile) can come to salvation on the same basis: not by keeping the Judaic Law, but by receiving the free gift of grace through repentance, faith, and Baptism.

Whoever receives this gift will share a life-giving, sanctifying relationship with Jesus Christ, which is authentically manifest and completed by "faith, working in love" (Gal 5:6). Saint Paul is certainly not saying that all the creation ordinances of God about men and women (which he discusses elsewhere in his writings) are thereby overturned. He is not even drawing conclusions here about whether social distinctions of any kind legitimately may be manifested in the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. In fact, contrary to popular belief, St. Paul did not insist on erasing all practice of Jewish cultic laws among Christians. (He even agreed to have his head shaved to prove his continued respect for the Mosaic Law: see Acts 21:17-26.) But he did forbid Jewish Christians from teaching that keeping the Jewish cultic laws (such as circumcision) were necessary to salvation, and that it gave them a superior pathway to salvation. Again, the road to salvation (as the whole Letter to the Galatians makes abundantly clear) is common to all and founded on a free gift of grace.

This is not to say that Galatians 3:27-28 has no wider social implications. Clearly, if slaves can be "saved," and on the same basis as anyone else, this implies that they are "people" - fully human beings, like everyone else - and this undermines the rationale for slavery, which is based on treating some people merely as "property." Similarly, men and women must share a fundamental, equal worth if they are all saved by Christ in basically the same way. And this means that if there are any social roles that are distinctive to men or women, they should be understood and constructed in ways that do not violate that equal dignity. But the social implications of Galatians 3 need to be carefully argued and established in each case: They cannot be assumed from the modern political rhetoric about "equality," and then read back into the text. For example, we cannot legitimately claim that just because of Galatians 3, and because rich and poor are saved by Christ on the same basis, there should be full equality of income among Christians (to some extent, at least, income differentials are justifiable when they reflect different degrees of effort that people put into their work, different degrees of education and training needed to undertake their work, and different degrees of responsibility for the life and prosperity of others that different jobs entail). Again, Galatians 3 is not a manifesto for whatever movements for social "equality" happen to be popular in our culture today.

Throughout the New Testament story, women often come off rather well, by contrast, with the way men generally behave. For example, while all but one of Christ's Apostles fled and abandoned Him at the time of His arrest and Crucifixion, most of the women remained faithfully with Him at the foot of the Cross; and women were also the first witnesses of the Resurrection. In fact, Jesus welcomed women among his travelling band of disciples (Lk 8:1-3), even though allowing women to live as itinerant followers of a rabbi or prophet certainly violated the customary social boundaries of his day.

Above all, there is the remarkable role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. When we first meet her in the Gospels, in the story of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel, she sets the example for us of total surrender to God's loving plan of salvation through Jesus Christ: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). In this tremendous act of giving her consent, in the fullness of time she receives the Savior into the world on behalf of us all (Gal 4:4).

This in itself already forms part of a response to the complaint made by many Feminists that the Bible blames the fall of the human race on the weakness of women. As a matter of fact, in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul holds Adam principally responsible for the fall (as "head," no doubt, of the first family, and as the one who had been charged with the protection of the Garden of Eden from harm : see Gen 2:15). Moreover, it was a favorite theme of the earliest Christian Fathers of the Church, such as St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, that Mary had "untied the knot" of sin that Eve had tied. Mary was prepared by God for this role by being "full of grace," as the angel Gabriel said - or more literally in the Greek, from the verb charitoo in Lk 1:28, read in the light of Ephesians 1:6 (the only other use of that same verb in the whole New Testament): she was the "completely transformed by grace one." When Mary then gave her consent to the good angel Gabriel, and received the Savior into the world, she thereby reversed the evil into which Eve had fallen when Eve succumbed to the fallen angel, the serpent, in the Garden of Eden. In short, the Annunciation was the turning point of the whole story of the world's salvation, and Mary was the principal servant and instrument of the Lord at this crucial moment in the history of the human race: the moment of the incarnation of the Son of God.

Feminist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir was highly critical of Mary's role in the Annunciation story, arguing that she is implicitly praised in the Gospels merely for her obedience and submission, and that her reward for all this subservience is to give birth to a male child, and then to serve and adore Him too. What De Beauvoir does not see, however, is what the Catholic Tradition has always taught in its reading of this passage: that all of us, both men and women, are meant follow Mary's example of trustful surrender to God's merciful love, and live as faithful disciples of her Son. Alice Von Hildebrand puts it this way in her book The Privilege of Being a Woman:

The French feminist forgets to mention that all knees should bend in front of the Savior [Phil 2:10], and as knees have no sex, men are definitely included .... She also forgets to mention that if all knees should bend in front of the Savior, all heads should bow in front of his mother. (p. 12-13)

This last point bears some repeating, because in the Catholic Tradition Mary is not only the poor and humble woman of faith of Nazareth. Insofar as she was called to be Mother of the Messiah by the angel Gabriel, and told that her son was to have an everlasting Kingdom, this implied that she was to be the Queen Mother of that everlasting Kingdom (for in ancient Israel, as throughout the Middle East, the queen of the kingdom was the mother of the king, and not one of his [normally numerous] wives; e.g. see I Kings 2:19-20). We see an allusion to this in the Book of Revelation. Catholic Tradition holds that the figure of "the woman clothed with the sun" and crowned with 12 stars (Rev 12:1), who brought forth the male child who will rule over the nations with a "rod of iron" (Rev 12:5), must be Mary, the Mother of God Incarnate, Mother of the Messiah. In short, for Catholics, Mary is not only the symbol of saving faith and authentic Christian discipleship, but also the living Queen-Mother of the everlasting Kingdom of Christ, and therefore also the Queen of Heaven and Mother of Mercy, a role which she exercises by her constant, maternal prayers on our behalf.

Next Time: Women in Catholic History - the Ancient World

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

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