Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 21, 2002
Men and women are partners in marriage
By By GLEN ARGAN
In some corners of Christianity, the belief exists that husbands are the head of the family, that God has decreed that the man ought to rule over his wife.
This belief is not without Scriptural basis. Ephesians 5:22, for example, states, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Likewise, in Colossians 3:18, St. Paul writes, "Wives be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord."
Pope Pius X1, in a 1930 encyclical, appears to endorse this view when he says, the order of love "includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and her willing obedience."
It's hard to read these quotations without being left with an image of Edith Bunker, running to meet her Archie's ever desire and, in her few moments of rest, sitting on a chair several inches lower than his.
But this is not Catholic teaching. Pope Pius, after making what we today would see as a provocative statement, pretty much explains it away. Wives, he said, have the dignity of a human person, fulfill a "noble office of wife and mother and companion," should not obey unreasonable requests by their husbands, and should not be treated as minors.
Pope John Paul takes a different approach to this topic. Instead of emphasizing Ephesians 5:22-23, he zeroes in on 5:21 - "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."
In his major 1981 document on the family, the pope writes that marital love "requires that a man have a profound respect for the dignity of his wife." He goes on to condemn "a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships" (Community of the Family, 25).
Pope John Paul returned to the subject seven years later in his statement On The Dignity and Vocation of Women. Here he says the controversial Ephesians 5:22-23 is "profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the times" and that it must be interpreted in terms of Ephesians 5:21.
"All the reasons for the 'subjection' of woman to man in marriage," he says, "must be understood in the sense of a 'mutual subjection' of both 'out of reverence for Christ.'" Gone is all talk of the husband as head and the wife as the heart of the family.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects this shift in papal teaching. It includes a reference to Ephesians 5:21, which is a beautiful description of how Christ helps a couple deal with their difficulties and grow stronger in their love:
"Christ dwells with (Christian spouses), gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another's burdens, to 'be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,' and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love" (no. 1642).
Perhaps nowhere in all of Christian teaching will one find such a succinct description of how to live out the sacrament of Matrimony in a way that respects the equal dignity of one's partner.
Still, this does not make Christian marriage easier. Rather, it gives us a clearer view of what is at stake - mutual, not one-sided, subjection and reverence for Christ at the centre of it all.
Perhaps this is where marriages often break down. Neither partner is willing to subject him or herself to the other. Or perhaps reverence for Christ has not been at the core of the marriage.
So the teaching of Pope John Paul makes heavier demands on both husband and wife than does the earlier, less-egalitarian approach. We are both to be subject to the other and to do so in a spirit of reverence to Christ. It is a beautiful vision of marriage, one which the world needs to see lived out more often.