Did You Know - How we Change

Fifth in a series by John Houk

From defective and veiled to --- what???

Each age has its changes to work through. The role of women is one of ours. In recent years there have been numerous Church pronouncements on the role of women with some reversing the position of the previous one. For example in 1980 John Paul II said no -no to girl altar servers and in 1994 reversed that decision and said that local bishops had the choice. The USCCB tried for several years to write a pastoral letter on women and gave up because each new draft was less helpful than the one before. Yes, this is an issue for our time. Here is some history:

Tertullian c. 200 (Early Church Father) “You (women) are the devils gateway ... you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.”

John Chrysostom, c. 400 Women were “to be veiled not only at the time of prayer, but continuously”

Synod of Paris, 829 “In some provinces it happens that women press around the altar, touch the holy vessels, hand the clerics the priestly vestments, indeed even dispense the body and blood of the Lord to the people. This is shameful and must not take place.”

Decretum, 1140 “The image of God is in man in such a way that there is only one Lord ... and thus woman is not made in God’s image.”

Pius X, 1903 “Women, therefore, being incapable of such an office, cannot be admitted to the choir.”

Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “Any type of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the basis of sex,... must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” (Note: This is from a Council “Constitution” the most authoritative of all Council Documents.)

Christians could (and can) only see with the eyes of their culture. Slavery had been everywhere for as long as anyone could remember. Therefore, it was almost impossible for someone to conceive that slavery was morally wrong. So it has been with the role of women in the culture that has sustained Christianity. In this culture women contributed nothing to the next generation (all active participation came from the male “seed”), women were mentally, physically and spiritually inferior to the point of serious defect in their nature, women were naturally subservient to men and finally they were the cause of sin in the world.

Against this cultural baggage even St. Paul’s "there is no male or female but all are one in Jesus", and Vatican II’s "discrimination on the grounds of sex is incompatible with God’s design" did (and do) not compute in our culturally formed attitudes toward women. St. Paul fell to using the prevailing cultural codes to describe the role of women, and our Church is now marching backwards when it comes to including women in decision making and ministry. We use only male language for God as if feminine language were heretical despite section 370 of our Catechism which proclaims that God has no gender. (Even the Catechism doesn’t compute.) The inclusive and egalitarian gospel of Jesus is still struggling to penetrate our culturally conditioned minds.

We have come a long way from Tertullian to Vatican II, but we still have a long way to go.