Submissive to your husband?

Scripture and traditional teachings can get in the way of victims’ healing.

Several of my female friends have shared with me the trauma they suffered as children. One was assaulted twice at knifepoint and stalked before she was 14. Another was forced to perform oral sex on her brother from the age of 7; at 18 she was sexually molested by a priest. Still another was sexually abused by her father and forced to have two abortions as a teenager. A 24-year-old I met recently left a physically abusive marriage and is tormented by the fact that she was unfaithful to the vows she made before God.

Such stories are all too common. As adults, these women have to pick up the pieces of their shattered childhoods and figure out where God was through it all. The church could help these women, but unfortunately many women don’t feel they can look to the church for guidance.

In the past the church’s traditional teachings about relationships have not been helpful to victims. A literal interpretation of Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18 (“wives be subject to your husbands”) has taught women to be submissive and led men to justify abusive behavior.

In his encyclical “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” Pope John Paul II corrected the understanding of this Pauline phrase, writing, “In marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ.’” It will take time before a new mentality replaces the old.

Until then, rather than removing this reading from the liturgy or taking this specific phrase out (as parishes in the United States can do), I think this reading would present an opportunity for priests to preach about the correct understanding of this passage, and encourage both men and women to live up to this ideal. Women desperately need to hear this from the church.

The U.S. bishops have written two documents in which they acknowledge and condemn abuse against women and children: “When I Call for Help” and “Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse.” The latter suggests that the issue be brought up in marriage preparation, but the four largest U.S. dioceses reported to me that they do not proactively address abuse in these key programs. The U.S. church still does not yet have a pastoral response in place to address the living of chastity and healthy sexuality by those who have been abused.

Although it may seem subtle, the church’s emphasis on female virginity does not help women develop healthy sexual lifestyles or recognize well-rounded Christian models.

The experience of St. Maria Goretti, who at the age of 11 was stalked and killed by a teenage boy, for example, could speak to victims of sexual assault. Yet I cringe every time I read her official presentation as the first martyr of chastity in the Liturgy of the Hours: “In 1902 she was stabbed to death, preferring to die rather than be raped.” Her horrific death is romanticized, making the choice to die hers. Truly she “preferred” not having sex; he preferred to kill her.

As a leftover from patristic times, unmarried female saints still are “virgins,” a sexual classification, but unmarried male saints aren’t. Moreover, the heroism of the virgin martyrs has been trivialized because the preservation of virginity is portrayed as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. Roman women were making social and cultural statements by remaining unmarried, but instead they are remembered for miraculously escaping sexual assault. A more healing interpretation of a virgin martyr’s story would be that even though her body had been assaulted, there was still a place in her where no man could enter.

The church should extend role models that are more relevant to women who have been abused. Today’s victims live on. Not only do the myths about “virgin martyrs” need to be reinterpreted, but we also need to extend new role models that reach beyond sexual identity.

The church can contribute to repairing the harm that has been done to women through its past teaching only if it first recognizes the need for this. Healthy dialogue with women is crucial. Once priests and bishops listen objectively and sincerely to women, especially those who have been abused, in order to understand our lived reality and include that reality in official church teaching and liturgy, then a genuine, pastoral response may be forthcoming. Girls will have positive models, homilies will encourage respect for women, and programs will help heal the pain of abuse. Then perhaps women will once again feel they can look to the church for guidance.

Sister Bernadette M. Reis, F.S.P., is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul and is involved in media ministry in Boston.

All active news articles