What Does a Catholic Woman and Wife Look Like?

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"What Does a Catholic Woman and Wife Look Like?" by Jane Korvemaker (CatholicMom.com)

Image credit: By Omar Lopez (2017), Unsplash.com, CC0/PD

I’ve seen several debates on social media about what it means to be a Catholic woman/wife. I’m putting in two cents from my standpoint. It might not be what you hear or see on social media, just to prepare you. I can guarantee it is authentically Catholic.

What Happened in Eden?

We need to start at the beginning. The story of Creation, before the fall, tells us something about who we are in relation to God. There are two accounts of Creation, stemming from the Yahwist tradition (~tenth century BCE) and the Priestly tradition (~sixth century BCE):

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1: 26-27, Priestly tradition)

and

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.” (Gen 1: 7, 18, 21-23, Yahwist tradition)

Just to be clear, what we read here does not indicate hierarchy of the sexes. I have often seen this to validate the claim that because woman comes from man’s rib, she must submit to him. But this is a very bad reading of Scripture. Man was also taken from the dust to be formed, but he does not submit to the dust. Also, she did not come from his foot, implying that he is above her. Nor did she come from his head that she would be above him. She came from his side; she is his peer.

The ultimate interpretation from these creation stories is that we are nothing except through God’s creative act. We exist, male and female, solely by God’s will. If we submit to anyone, it is to God for his supreme act of creating us in his own image and likeness out of great love.

This is what defines Catholic womanhood: our relation to God. Both in image and likeness. To clarify those terms a bit, I refer to The Christian Vision of Humanity by John R. Sachs: “The first [image]refers to a concrete form of representation, like a carved statue … The term likeness refers more specifically to an internal relationship and similarity.” It is this image and likeness are what give us our innate dignity. It is surprisingly no different than manhood and this is precisely because we find the meaning of our lives, in our biological bodies, only in God; not our relationship to each other. Together, male and female are commissioned by God to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). This tells us that we are commissioned to relate to each other as male and female in procreation and also to work together to care for creation. As image and likeness of God, we are in a very real sense God’s representatives here, watching over and bringing forth the beauty of creation.

We were made to naturally relate to one another and to do good work here on earth. Before sin entered into the world, this was a natural part of what it meant to be human. And even though sin has warped and overshadowed our relationship with God, we are still defined by that relationship. First and foremost this is where we find our meaning.

What Did Jesus Do?

Jesus’ relationship with women was vastly different from others in his culture. He was very subversive in his ministry and related to women in a way that had been lost in the Fall from Eden. He approached and spoke not only with a Samaritan, but an outcast Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30, especially verse 27). He acknowledged and spoke not only to an unclean person, but a hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-34). Some of his closest disciples were women (Mary Magdalene & others). These are only a few references but the Gospels are filled with him interacting with women, and publicly. He put to rest the expectations of relationships with women were and showed us what they should be.

Jesus’ interaction with women was contrary to Jewish practices. The difference is that while the cultures of the day (Jewish and Roman) referred to women in relation to the men who directed/oversaw them, Jesus related to them based on their relationship to God. And that was radical. It was shocking (see again John 4:27). It was uncomfortable. Jesus was concerned with women’s relationship with his Father (through him) outside of any relationship with men.

When Women Marry…

Do they have to submit to their husbands and leave all decisions as final in his hands? I’ve read many posts telling Catholic women exactly this and that anything else is unbiblical. Except, that’s not how the church has chosen to interpret marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on marriage. And while it could have pointed to St. Paul’s hierarchy in Ephesians 5:22-23, it chose instead to use verse 21: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

This tells us something about how the church interprets Scripture, and the Church has wisdom in her interpretation. The interpretation of the Bible is entrusted to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and it requires much understanding of the many different methods, analysis, approaches, and hermeneutics of interpretation. This snapshot shows a part of the index from the document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

"What Does a Catholic Woman and Wife Look Like?" by Jane Korvemaker (CatholicMom.com)

Screenshot of index by Jane Korvemaker.

It is reasonable to acknowledge that the particular passage of Ephesians 5:22-23 has caused many issues and was therefore omitted from their discussion of marriage in the Catechism, instead emphasizing that marriage is first and foremost a mutual and sacramental gift of self-giving love. What that mutuality will look like can be as different as the persons whom enter into that sacrament together. But at the very least, when we read Ephesians 5, we need to understand that the love we ought to offer to our spouse is meant to be that complete self-giving love. It is meant to resemble the love of Christ on the cross, mutually so.

We need to think on that. The Church, in her wisdom, did not use the verse that I see often used to tell women that they are not being biblical if they don’t submit to their husbands, or that their husbands have the ‘final say’ in any/every decision. If the church does not do this, we also should not be doing this.

So what does it mean to be a Catholic woman and wife? It means finding our identity in Christ our savior, not in constructs of human culture. God calls each of us into intimate relationship with him, and womanhood looks an awful lot like the road to holiness, which is as vast as St. Joan of Arc, St. Perpetua, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Gianna, to name a few. All these women are our mentors in what it means to be a woman of Christ. Their common denominator was listening to God’s voice in their life and following it as best as they were able.

To be a Catholic woman or wife, listen to God’s voice and harden not your hearts. This is what is central to our identity as baptized Catholic women.

What have you been told about being a Catholic woman/wife?


Copyright 2019 Jane Korvemaker 
Scripture quotes from the NRSV Bible

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About Author

Jane Korvemaker loves food, family, wine, and God (perhaps not in that order). She holds a Certificate in Culinary Arts, which pairs perfectly with her Bachelor in Theology. A former Coordinator of Youth Ministry, she writes from the beautiful and cold province of Saskatchewan, Canada. She works from home and takes care of her three very hard-working children. Jane regularly blogs at www.ajk2.ca.

11 Comments

  1. Submission to rightful authority is an essential element of the Catholic Faith and eternal bliss in the Beatific Vision.

    Personal power and glory has its place, but not in heaven. “Non Serviam”! vs Blessed are the meek”.

    I have learned, since becoming a Catholic, I find greatest happiness in: “God is God, I am not, thanks be to God”.

      • To God, certainly, and also to all those in rightful authority whoever they may be.

        Authority does not imply “better”. I think that is what is so often missed these days. God does not see it that way. He exalts the widow who gives the mite. He also exalts Judith who in faith killed the Assyrian General Holofernes on behalf of her repentant nation (and thus gets an entire book of the Bible about her). He exalts meek and loving Mary Magdalen, and Mary His Mother – Queen Of heaven and earth (who in all humbleness and meekness submitted to her Lord: “Let it be done unto me according to thy will”), but who also crushes the serpent’s head.

        Blessed are the meek (Matt 5:5).

        He who is the greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. (Matt 23: 11-15)

        Wives submit to your husbands as unto the Lord.

        Husbands love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it.

        For we are members of His body, of His flesh, of His bones.

        Eph 5: 22-33.

        Those are the words of God through His Apostle Paul.

        The world is interested in power, wealth, influence, climbing to the top.

        A Catholic is interested in Love, submission, unity, being a member of the Body of the living Christ. Do as we ought with Christ above all and in all.

        And that means …..

        Wives submit. Husbands love. Both one body and one flesh in Christ.

        The point is not power over the other. Catholics find it an honor to submit to proper authority. Servants to each other in love, in Christ.

        • I’m not writing anything that is outside of what is spoken in our Catechism, which is the official document that teaches us how to live out our lives as Christians.

          It does not say anywhere that wives submit, husbands love. There is a reason for that omission.

          That is the point of my article. Our church does not teach that. It teaches that the sacrament of marriage is of mutuality. Thanks for your thoughts!

          • The Bible itself actually says that. Those are the words of God. And so the Church does teach that.

            And then, Pope St. John Paul II taught in Mulieris Dignitatem that (quote) “The husband is called the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. He is so in order to give himself up for her; and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life”.

            “She should reference him as the head. He should love her as his body” St. John Chrysostom.

            There is a reason why Holy Mother Church is called the Bride of Christ. Christ is the groom. The Church, His Bride. The Church (Bride) submits in reference and love. The Groom loves His Bride, even to giving His life for her.

            The marriage bond is precisely like that – a “Type” of The perfect yet to come. It may not be for pagans. But for Catholics, Ephesians 5:22-33 could not be any more clear – the marriage bond is a Type that points to the perfect marriage of heaven: Christ and Church. It is our duty and honor to submit.

            As Pope St. John Paul II says in mulieris dignitatem: “submission in the context of marriage can be considered mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ”.

            Let others worry about “power”. Catholics look only to Christ and the Beatitudes that lead us to Him. Blessed are the powerful and mighty is not one of them.

            Mutual self-giving, *each in their proper role*, is essential in marriage: According to Scripture and Church Teaching (samples above)

        • Thank you both for you discussion! I’d like to address one particular statement: “Wives submit. Husbands love.”

          It’s important to look at how the Church interprets Ephesians chapter 5. That is, it’s essential that verse 21 be included and highlighted: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This was beautifully pointed out by St. John Paul II in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (which was referred to in another post, though I cannot find the quote being referred to; there may a translation difference there).

          From Mulieris Dignitatem, par. 24 (***emphasis added***):
          “The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, *** so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21).*** This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, ***in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.***”

          The Catechism of the Catholic Church also emphasizes this mutuality in its interpretation of the Scripture (cf. par. 1642):

          “Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love.”

          As Jane pointed out, we cannot omit verse 21 from the interpretation of Ephesians 5, and the Church is wise to highlight this verse.

          I do, however, appreciate your comment that the “point is not power over the other.” This is especially borne out in Ephesians 5.1-2, which is ultimately the essential interpretive key for everything else:
          “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

          That is, all of the baptized are members of Jesus Christ are called — each in our own vocations — to love one another as Christ has loved us and has given himself up for us. I’m sure we’d all agree — the more we all try to live this out (by grace), the better off our world would be!

          Thank you for this discussion!

          • So well said, Faither.

            For example – I submit myself to the authority of the Church, it’s Magisterium and it’s Priests who guard and deliver its truth to us.

            That does not make Priests “better” than me. It’s not even remotely the point. We all have our just roles. And all of us mutually love each other (Agape) in Christ.

            I fundamentally agree with you. I have not always lived this properly in my own marriage, but after 28 years, I can tell you I have aimed at it, and grown. I would give my life for wife and children. I literally give my life for them every day: time, strength, treasure. As time goes by, I give more, not less.

            It’s not about “power” (gross). It’s about getting fit for heaven and purging sinful inclinations out; building virtues and living as we ought until death renders our story complete. Marriage is a perfect place to practice …. while time yet remains,

  2. We are seeing the radical feminization of the West, it is almost inconceivable for modern people to grasp how superior is God’s recommendation to the proper relationship of man to woman and woman to man.
    Women “empowered” are often pretty unappealing and unfit for long-term relationship within marriage, and men emasculated or over-compensating are selfish and effeminate bullies also unfit for long-term relationship. How many man-child men does the world need?

    Neither one is completely ready for how to relate without bringing all that baggage with them and living out their marital vocation as God intended. What I recommend is people try to find Catholic couples who have been married at least 40 years, then hang around them, observe them, and ask questions about how they worked it all out. It doesn’t just happen, you have to be pretty intentional, and you have had to figure out how to work it all out together. Sometimes he gets his way, sometimes she does, it depends on how important a particular decision is. Both must be willing to submit to the other, but I am willing to say, if men are encouraged to be weak and take a back seat to a strong woman, that often does not work out well in the long run. You win the battle but lose the war, in ways you can’t imagine. Be careful what you ask for.

    • I think there is a fine line between being ‘radicalized’ and understanding radically what Jesus lived and how our church asks us to live out our lives as Christians.

      Our church has chosen to interpret how to live out a sacramental marriage (in the Catechism) which is what I strongly refer to in my article. It is radical living out a sacramental marriage – because it calls us to complete self-sacrificing mutual love (just as the Catechism tells us). Many marriages are built on self-serving love, which is what our society tells us is one of the greatest goods.

      We need to be careful who we’re listening to because our church has our highest good at heart.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. So I came into this with a different viewpoint. I shared my view with Jane and she took the time to help me understand what the Church actually teaches. I’m EXCITED to live this new life understanding the “mutual authority.” My husband and I live a marriage of self-sacrificing love for one another because we’re best friends and love each other very deeply. We both bring everything we have plus more to the table. Yet there was always the underlying understanding (from our own culture and upbringing) that marriage won’t work unless the woman submits in all things. Honestly, the mutual authority is liberating BUT with this knowledge comes the balance of not using it to gain the upper hand after spending years with the lower hand. The backlash is kind of where feminists get the bad rap. Instead of a gradual reintroduction but still maintaining the males mutual authority, women are trying to strip men of their authority altogether. That is where I see the danger. Being oppressed for so long will make women try to come out the victor. It’s a power some don’t know how to wield. Another good post, Jane, would be HOW women can share this mutual authority after living years of subjugation. Thanks again for all the research and time you took (and the patience) helping women to understand their roles as wives and mothers!

    • Thanks for sharing your journey, Kelly. I wasn’t expecting you to :). And I agree about the backlash – the point is not to create a matriarchy, but something new (like what Jesus did) that is of mutuality, which more closely resembles Eden than the Fall (Mulieris Dignitatem is a great document outlining this).

      I mean, I DO expect it to be a struggle and Jesus’ teaching is difficult still to embrace at times (as is our church’s). That is a part of the journey. Jesus still invites us on the journey with him.

      Thanks again for sharing your experience Kelly 🙂

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