“To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So says Simon Peter to Jesus in today’s gospel (Jn 6:60-69). As people of faith, we approach the Scriptures with confidence that they will not lead us astray. The Bible is God’s Revelation. We say the Bible is a sacred text, an inspired text, that it is good news. Today’s psalm invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” (Ps 34). Does the letter from St. Paul invite women to taste and see the goodness of the Lord?
“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of his wife just as Christ is the head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5: 21-24).
Should Catholic homilists continue to preach Ephesians 5, today’s second reading, as “the word of the Lord”? Would it be ok to be silent instead of responding “Thanks be to God”? Is Ephesians 5 good news for married women in the pews of our churches?
Today’s psalm is often given the title, “Deliverance from Trouble.” For many women today, the psalm seems like it is written straight from their own experience of domestic violence. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines domestic violence in this way:
Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional abuse… Intimate partner violence is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior which is only a fraction of a systematic pattern of dominance and control.
Domestic violence is an epidemic in the US. Every minute 20 people are victims of intimate partner violence. Women are much more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence with 85% of domestic abuse victims being women and 15% men. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds in the US. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. With many new stories about athletes or celebrities publicly abusing their wives or girlfriends, many more women are victimized in the privacy of their own home. With the high rates of domestic violence and child abuse in our country, we simply can’t assume that home is a safe space for women and children.
Today’s reading from St. Paul provides religious sanction for violence against women because it describes male headship as normative in marriage. While later in the reading Paul tells husbands to love their wives, it is not because women are equal partners but rather because the wife is seen as an extension of the husband’s own body. Some scripture scholars refer to this paradigm as “love patriarchalism,” and this vision of marriage was the dominant one through much of the Catholic tradition. Even Casti Connubii (Pope Pius XI, 1930) retained this emphasis:
Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that ‘order of love,’ as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: ‘Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.’ (no. 26).
Piux XI claims that a marriage of equal partners would be “unnatural” and “to the detriment of the woman herself.” (no 76). In contrast to this vision, the US Bishops wrote in their 2009 Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan that marriage is a “communion of love between co-equal persons” (page 37 of the online pdf version). Church teachings on marriage today emphasize the equal dignity of each partner and their task of mutual self-gift. But the image of male dominance that we see in many parts of our sacred scriptures still normalizes violence against women in our own context. If we change some pronouns, we might see how survivors of domestic violence could hear Psalm 34 in a new light.
The lowly will hear me and be glad.
The Lord has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry.
The Lord confronts evildoers, to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all distress God rescues them.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit God saves.
Many are the troubles of the just one, but out of them all the Lord delivers her.
God watches over all her bones; not one of them shall be broken.
Read in this way, Psalm 34 gives hope to women in the pews in a way that Ephesians 5 simply doesn’t. God hears the cries of women and children for whom home is unsafe. The real Christian response to today’s readings should be to ask ourselves what we can do to name, interrupt, and end violence against women and children. We too can be close to the brokenhearted. We can strengthen social supports for women and children. We can stop demonizing women who rely on public assistance. We can normalize “yes means yes” campaigns. We can hold presidential candidates accountable for their sexist comments and demand that women are treated with fairness. We can fund domestic abuse hotlines, shelters for women and children who flee from unsafe homes, and mental health clinics that serve those most in need. In this way, women and children will taste justice and see that the Lord is good.
God watches over all her bones; not one of them shall be broken. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
If you need help, dial the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Carol Adams and Marie Fortune, Eds., Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook
- Marie Fortune, Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse
- Emily Reimer-Barry, Catholic Theology of Marriage in the Era of HIV and AIDS: Marriage for Life
- Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope