WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Bob McKeon, archdiocesan director of social justice, said greater awareness of woman's rights led to a shift in how the Church speaks about domestic violence.
Domestic violence continues traumatizing women and children, especially in Alberta, which leads the provinces in domestic assault, homicide-suicide and stalking.
More than 12,000 abused women and children were residents in Alberta's shelters between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008. Around 14,000 women and children who sought shelter in that period were turned away. Shelters handed nearly 70,000 crisis calls in that same period.
"This is a challenging topic for us (as a Church)," says Bob McKeon, director of social justice for the Edmonton Archdiocese.
The Church, McKeon said, was silent about family violence until the late 1980s.
"Yet publicly we began to acknowledge this by the 1970s with the start of shelters in Alberta. And it's important to name the leaders of the Catholic Women's League who were important in setting up those shelters."
McKeon was one of several speakers who spoke on Family Violence Today at the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices Nov. 24.
Key words in some of the Church's documents about marriage and family earlier this century included submission and redemptive suffering.
But greater awareness about women's rights and human rights in general brought about a shift in language within the Church. A language of mutuality, partnership and cooperation of spouses replaced the old language of control and submission.
In McKeon's experience, the issue of family violence was not named within the Edmonton Archdiocese until 1989, "even though it was a real pervasive issue in those years."
Within a year, Church statements began to come out.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops made a public statement on family violence in 1991, the U.S. bishops followed in 1992; the Northern Canadian bishops did the same in 1995. Soon family violence became a regular theme in Vatican circles, especially with Pope John Paul II.
In these documents, "there was a clear Church judgment that violence in marriage and in the family is wrong," McKeon said.
Interpretations of the Bible and Church teaching on marriage that could be seen to legitimize violence in marriage or view it as not serious were challenged by bishops everywhere.
"The Canadian bishops' statement was incredibly clear: 'violence against women breaks the fifth commandment, it's a sin, it's a crime, it's a serious social problem,'" McKeon said.
Pope John Paul in his letter to women in 1995 said the Church couldn't remain indifferent with respect to violence against women, and he condemned it vigorously.
"The (Canadian) bishops also said the use of Scripture to justify the domination of women is unacceptable," McKeon said, referring to the story in the garden in the Book of Genesis, which says the man will dominate the woman.
"They (the bishops) said men and women are created equally in the image and likeness of God and are one in Christ."
Similarly there is a passage in Ephesians 5 which says, "Wives be subject to your husbands for your husband is the head of the wife."
In addressing that passage, John Paul said we are called to be submissive to each other as all human beings are to be submissive before Christ.
"It's not to be read as one gender being submissive to another. It should be read as mutual submission in love."
McKeon said Catholic teaching emphasizes the permanence of marriage. In light of this, some pastors insisted people should stay in a violent marriage. "You have made a life-commitment, live it out," they say.
But McKeon said there is also a caution as we teach the permanency of marriage.
"The Northern bishops put it this way: 'Because we in the Church believe so strongly in the sacredness of marriage, we have sometimes given the impression that a woman must stay in an abusive relationship no matter how much she is shamed and physically hurt.
"'We want to make it very clear that the Catholic Church teaches that a woman has the right and sometimes the duty to protect herself and her children by leaving a violent situation when it occurs.'"
"I think our Church teachings are clear that all of us, women and men, need to work together to overcome domination and violence in our families and in the wider society," McKeon said.