CathBlog - The authentic Church was not a patriarchy


We do not need exclusive language and other patriarchal values in our worship. Defenders of exclusive language are forgetting history. 

As regards gender equality in the New Testament, there are two traditions represented. The first appears in writings attributed to St Paul, mirroring values of the wider secular society, and affirms patriarchal values and women’s inferiority as accepted in the wider secular culture of the times (1 Cor 11:5-10; Eph 5:22; 1 Cor 14: 34-35). 

The second tradition that is in other writings of St Paul is often overlooked. Here, an egalitarian gender emphasis is evident (Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-6). In the Gospels Jesus also strongly stresses the egalitarian approach of love and ministerial services in words and actions, not the culture of patriarchy (John 20: 11-18; Luke 18: 1-8).

An egalitarian emphasis in ministry was common in early Christian communities. In pre-Pauline Christian communities, women appear to have acted in almost identical ways to men. Women preached the gospel, went on missionary journeys, and filled some leadership functions in early Christian communities. 

All this was to change in 313 AD with the Peace of Constantine (pictured). Persecutions against Christians ceased, and from then on, the Church’s leadership embraced the patriarchal structures of contemporary Roman culture.

We are still under the influence in many ways of this unfortunate acceptance of prevailing patriarchal cultural values. The fact is: the Church embraced too readily and uncritically the courtly and hierarchical ways of the imperial system. Bishops now used the power symbols of royalty, for example in dress and titles. 

As regards the position of women, by civil Roman law a woman was under the control of the father before marriage and under the husband’s authority following marriage. A woman had no legal protection; her status was that of physical and mental weakness.

All this negatively impacted on the status and role of women in the Church. Because women, according to the culture of the time, were considered in some way impure, they had to be excluded from direct involvement in liturgies. The Synod of Laodicea in the 4th century declared: “Women are not allowed to approach the altar.” The Synod of Paris in 829 told women not to press around the altar or touch the sacred vessels.

The distressing patriarchal influence is also obvious historically in the way in which women’s religious congregations evolved.

From the 4th century restrictions on women ministering in the church intensified. But there is evidence of communities of consecrated virgins even before the time of St Benedict (ca.480-547). Some argue that they were formed as a protest against the exclusion of women from the increasing patriarchy in the Church. However, after the time of St Benedict, women’s religious congregations emerged as counterparts to the men’s orders and were dependent on them in various ways. 

The patriarchal culture of the Church and society effectively stifled efforts by women to act alone in devising new forms of religious life. As the centuries passed the enclosure of religious sisters became stricter, and their habits and veils more copious.

Extremely brave and prophetic women like St Angela Merici (1474-1540), the founder of the Ursulines, and Loreto founder Mary Ward (1586-1646), attempted to dispense with the cloister and habit and become more directly in ministry to people, but without success.

One of the problems in human cultures is to assume without question that contemporary values and customs have legitimacy in the distant past. The Church is both divine and human.

As the esteemed theologian and historian, Henri de Lubac, wrote the Church is no “misty entity”. That is, the Church is not a pure spirit. It does form a human culture that must constantly be critiqued by the values of authentic tradition and the Gospels. 

However embarrassing the findings, this critique must be undertaken with deep faith and humility. Our refusal to use inclusive language in our worship demands such a critical cultural and historical review.

Gerald Arbuckle Father Gerald Arbuckle SM has published books relevant to the above theme, e.g. Violence, Society, and the Church: A Cultural Approach (2004), Laughing with God: Culture, Humour, and Transformation (2008), andCulture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (2010).

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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