Friday, 24 February 2012

Head of the family?

In the light of the public debate about the nature of marriage, it seems appropriate to reflect on some controversial aspects of that venerable institution. I have an article on the main site about the nature of marriage and why the Church says same-sex marriage is not just undesirable but impossible. Cardinal Keith O'Brien's strongly worded statement on the government's plans can be read here. Archbishop Nichols' Pastoral Letter can be read in full here, and his reflections on marriage and friendship here. An overview of the global panorama on same-sex unions is provided by Zenit here. Meanwhile, over at Humanum is an editorial concerning divorce, and a future issue will review the arguments over same-sex unions. The following notes concern rather the question of equality in marriage in the light of the "new feminism".

St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (5: 21-33) tells us to "subordinate ourselves to one another in the fear of Christ" (we might say, "out of respect for Christ"). He goes on to tell wives to be "subject" to their husbands as to the Lord, because "the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the Church, the redeemer of his body." So husbands must love their wives "as their own bodies", "just as Christ himself loved the Church and handed himself over for her", in order to to sanctify her. He is saying all this, he adds (v. 32) "in reference to Christ and the Church".

It is easy to read these instructions in a "worldly" way, and derive from them an instruction to place the man in the position of master, with woman as the passive slave ("body"). But in the light of the relationship of Christ and the Church, there is another way
to read this. Bear in mind that Paul is addressing people who would assume that the woman is naturally subordinate to the man. Paul did not invent patriarchy! So he first says that man and woman are to subordinate themselves to one another, not the woman to the man. Both are equally subordinate to Christ ("in the fear of Christ"). Second, once in Christ – that is, if and only if husband and wife are both subordinated to Christ – the couple can "act out" the relationship of Christ to the Church. The husband can be Christlike in his love for the wife, and she can then safely subject herself to Christ by subjecting herself to him – in a sense, then, she is subjecting herself not to a fallible human being but to the One who loves her perfectly. And as for the husband, he must love her as Christ loved the Church, even to extent of shedding his life's blood for her. Nothing else will qualify him for the devotion she is trying to show him. But that devotion is itself qualified. It is not blind. The woman is not supposed to pretend the husband is Christlike when he obviously is not. But she is to look for Christ in him, and (in a maternal way) encourage the birth of Christ in him, to the extent he allows her – to the extent he gives himself to her, and opens himself to her. In other words, she is to obey the Christ she is enabled to bring to birth in her husband.

Adrienne von Speyr (in her commentary The Letter to the Ephesians) points out that Paul's instruction is designed to make sure that women understand there is no conflict between being married and serving the Lord. The vocation of marriage can itself be a path of perfection if she can follow Christ by following her husband – which she can do provided he performs his side of the bargain, pouring out his life for her and keeping nothing back for himself. So far from this being a justification for men to exploit women for their own purpose and pleasure, or to order them about, it in fact commands the exact opposite. The man is to love the woman, which excludes any action that is not in the woman's interest, and the woman is to "reverence" the man, which is the form the Church's love of Christ takes. But why does the instruction not say the wife is to love the husband? Perhaps because Paul is talking so much in reference to Christ and the Church here; so the wife is to reverence the husband as the representative of the one she must love unreservedly, namely Christ. While the husband must love her, not as a representative of anyone else but as herself, because he loves her with the love of Christ for his bride, the Church; and the woman is indeed the Church, or part of her; not merely her representative.

As human persons husband and wife are equal (hence the mutual subordination comes first). It is only their representative functions that are unequal, just as the Queen or President are unequal to a shopkeeper by virtue of their office but not as individuals. It is the same with priests, who are not (necessarily) any better or more Christlike than any of us lay people, but we show respect to them by virtue of the fact they have been called to represent Christ in a particular way – that is, as bridegroom in relation to the Church, and therefore as the one who offers sacrifice. The more they strive to live up to their calling, the more they will become worthy of it. The case of the husband is similar. He is being asked to represent Christ in a particular way, a way that is priestly (although only within the "domestic church" of the family, not the Church at large). At the same time, both spouses are supposed to follow Christ and become Christlike equally in fulfilment of their baptism; to become saints. (That is why St Paul says in Gal. 3:28 that there are no distinctions within the body of Christ.) Marriage is designed so that each can help the other to become holy. Paul seems to be saying that the husband and wife have different but complementary paths to sanctity within marriage (not instead of but in addition to all the other ways of sanctification that are open to both of them as members of the Church). The husband is supposed to try to act as Christ does in relation to the Church, the wife as the Church does in relation to Christ. But this doesn't imply "ontological" inequality. The husband is not being Christ but merely representing him in a particular, limited way – representing someone who in his own person renounces all worldly power over others, acts as a servant, and allows himself to be killed to give life to everyone else. Quite a challenge, and we need to be in Christ even to attempt it.

Icon of Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, by the hand of Matthew D. Garrett.

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