Often, we Catholics think we belong to a Church that doesn’t change—at least not when it comes to the really important fundamentals like faith and morals.  We tend to think that “the truth” is something the Church has always been in possession of since the beginning.  For this reason, we sometimes think that to be Catholic means to keep doing and thinking what has always been done and thought.  The past is something to be defended against the future.  In this view, “change,” is something that seems both and impossible and very bad—more like corruption and degeneration than development.  However, in reality, the truth is more complicated than that.  The church not only has changed, but also sometimes it must change not only because we must apply timeless truths to a changing historical reality, but also because we are a pilgrim people in the fullest sense. The truth is something we are always seeking but never fully in possession of.  As even Thomas Aquinas recognized, only God and the angels “have the entire knowledge of a thing at once and perfectly.[1]”  Human beings must instead submit themselves to “the process” of knowledge, which is completed only eschatologically.  For this reason, Aquinas insists the investigation of natural law necessarily “proceeds…[not just] over a long time” but also “with the admixture of many errors.[2]

When we look at the history of the Church’s teaching on women, we will see an example both of the reality  of change and of its necessity.  In this post, I will be looking at one aspect of the Church’s understanding of marriage.

For most of the tradition, the Church taught that the subjection of woman to man in marriage was divinely ordained and therefore unchangeable.  Now, in a remarkable reversal of traditional teaching, the church teaches that marriage is a union of equals.  What for hundreds of years the Church thought was a divinely commanded part of the natural law, it now rejects as an untruth, incompatible with human dignity.


In his work “Soliloquys,” Augustine argues that inequality is proper to marriage: while  “he [the man] rules by wisdom, she [the woman] is ruled by man for Christ is the head of the man, and the man is the head of the woman.[3]”  It is for this reason, rather than because of an innate longing for female companionship (as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would insist), that “it is not good that man is alone.[4]

Augustine considers subjection to be more essential to the relationship between man and woman than even sexual intercourse since “there could have been in both sexes, even without [sexual] intercourse, a kind of friendly and genuine union of the one ruling and the other obeying.[5]”  That sexual intercourse and heterosexual desire are not essential to masculinity or femininity for Augustine is affirmed by his belief that in the resurrection women’s bodies will “be free of the necessity of intercourse and childbirth” and they “will not excite the lust of the beholder.[6]”  It is important to note that Augustine’s definition of lust is much broader than contemporary understandings—for Augustine, lust included not just sexual desire that objectifies the other, but also sexual desire itself.

While for Augustine maleness and femaleness are bodily,[7] unlike JPII, he does not believe heterosexuality to be the ultimate or even essential meaning of this bodily difference since he argues “if [men with children] could be shown a way of having children without sexual intercourse, wouldn’t they embrace such a blessing with unspeakable joy?[8]” (One can only assume that Augustine would rejoice in the invention of artificial insemination!) This is radically different from the teaching of John Paul II, who argues “the body, in as much as it is sexual, expresses the vocation of man and woman to reciprocity which is to love and to the mutual gift of self.[9]


Aquinas affirms Augustine’s teaching on the necessity of the subjection of woman to man in marriage when he writes, “because in man the discretion of reason naturally predominates…woman is naturally subject to man.[10]”  To violate the subjection is to violate the good order of creation.  Again, for Aquinas as for Augustine, the man is more reasonable than the woman and therefore, just as the reason should govern the unreasonable passions, so too should man govern woman.  To go against this natural order is to go against the good, as this hierarchy is humankind’s only bulwark against “individual evil.[11]”  For Aquinas, God’s creating woman out of man’s rib is a highly significant detail of the creation story.  That “woman should not use authority over man…she was not made from his head;” that woman should not “be subject to man’s contempt as his slave…she was not made from his feet.[12]”  This differs profoundly from recent magisterial teaching on the meaning of the creation accounts, which sees sexual difference not through the lens of subjection but of complementarity.

The natural superiority of man to woman extends even to Aquinas’ understanding of the imago dei. Aquinas identifies two senses of the image of God.  The “principle signification[13]” of the image of God is humankind’s intellectual nature, which resides both in man and in woman (although clearly, the man has a greater capacity for the exercise of natural reason).  However, a second sense of the imago dei belongs only to man: “God is the beginning and end of every creature” just as “man is the beginning and end of woman[14]” since woman was “made out of man[15]” and the purpose of woman is to give birth to men and women who will give birth to men.

Moreover, Aquinas interprets Genesis’ description of the woman as a helper to the man in a narrow fashion: woman is not a helpmate in the sense that she helps man in “other works,” since, due to his natural superiority, man “can be helped more efficiently by another man in other works.[16]”  Therefore, woman is a helper only in the sense that she is essential to the process of generation.  In other words, man needs woman only to create new people—woman is not socially or politically necessary.  Woman also does not seem to be in any way necessary to man’s affective or relational life.  Outside of generation, man is an entirely self-sufficient entity.  In her role as producer of people, woman is “not misbegotten;” however, “as regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten” because she is the “result of a defect in the active force…of the male seed.[17]”  Aquinas sums this argument up neatly elsewhere when he labels women “misbegotten males.[18]”  This interpretation is radically different from that offered by both John Paul II, who teaches, “it is only through the duality of the masculine and feminine that the human finds full realization,[19]” and Benedict XVI, who argues, “only in communion with the opposite sex can [man] become ‘complete.[20]’”

The Church of the 20th Century

Pope Pius XI

Writing seven centuries after Aquinas, Pope Pius XI re-affirms the church’s heretofore unbroken teaching on the subjection of woman to men, reminding a rapidly changing world that, “the order of love includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children and the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience.[21]” Pius insists that, while the “degree and manner” of the subjection of wife to husband may vary throughout time and space, this subjection itself, which he includes as part of the “structure and fundamental law of the family” is “established and confirmed by God” and therefore “must always and everywhere be maintained intact.[22]

Pius XI labels those who assert, “The rights of husband and wife are equal,” to be “false prophets” since in so doing they threaten the traditional view of marriage, which is essential to the common good[23].  Pius XI defines the “emancipation of women” (presumably a buzz word at the time) to be all of the following: the idea that women should allowed to exempt herself from the so-called “burdensome duties…of wife and mother;” the idea that women should be able to “follow their own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs;” and the idea that women should be “at liberty to administer and conduct her own affairs…without knowledge or consent of her husband[24]”.   Underlying this argument is the assumption that autonomy and social participation are incompatible with marriage and motherhood.  Implicitly, this argument also reveals that, for Pius XI, a single woman—that is, one who does not belong to husband, father, or mother superior—is unthinkable.  For Pius XI, women’s pursuit of social and political independence is necessarily an act of disordered selfishness as involvement in social affairs is labeled as “neglect” of children while the desire to escape motherhood is described as a type of self-interested ‘pleasure.’

John XXIII: The Beginning of the End for Traditional Marriage

John XXIII begins the modern trend of upending the traditional definition of marriage as a union of unequal persons: in fact, he is probably the first papal enemy of the traditional marriage.   John XXIII for the first time in church history refers to the “equality of rights” between the sexes as “justly-proclaimed” and insists that they must “extend to all the claims of personal and human dignity”[25].  The magnitude of this proclamation cannot be overestimated—this is a truly remarkable moment in human history.  However, John XXIII does not admit the existence of full equality between the sexes, arguing that women and men do not possess an “equality of functions[26]”.  John XXIII is not clear about the nature of this inequality but insists that in her “natural attributes, tendencies, and instincts” it is true either that these are “strictly hers” or that “she possesses [them] to a different degree than man[27]”.

The context and purpose of this argument are crucial to understanding why it is structured the way it is.    This statement was issued more than one hundred years after the start of the women’s movement, by the pope who opened the windows of the church to the modern world.  It is not unreasonable to assume that John XXIII’s heart and mind were on the side of women’s equality; however, it is equally reasonable to assume that, as with Vatican II, John XXIII was careful not to open these windows too widely.   Thus, his argument for sexual inequality sounds radically unlike any previous ones: this inequality of function is the consequence not of woman’s inequality to man, but of her difference from him.

John Paul II and the Radical Reversal of Church Teaching

Like his predecessors Paul VI and John XXIII but unlike every other pope before him, John Paul II proclaims the equality of women to men. With John Paul II’s papacy, the sanctity of traditional marriage is completely destroyed.  In a reversal of centuries of church teaching, woman’s bodily difference is now interpreted as a moral advantage rather than disadvantage.  While Augustine argues that women are the image of God, he admits, “on the physical side [women’s] sexual characteristics may suggest…that man alone is said to be in the image and glory of God[28]”.  Aquinas also identifies the female body as the reason for her inequality, arguing that since “the father is the principle in a more excellent way than the mother [due to the embodied activity of insemination] while the mother is a passive and material principle [due to the embodied passivity of pregnancy]…the father is to be loved more [than the mother].[29]” Similarly, the inferiority of the female body, which Aquinas describes as the impossibility of the “female sex to signify eminence of degree,” is what makes her incapable of receiving “the sacrament of Order.[30]”  For John Paul II, however, women’s reproductive organs make them “more capable than men of paying attention to another person.”  Women possess this greater moral capacity since “the man—even with all his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy.[31]”  While John Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of women’s bodies differs in many ways from that provided by Augustine and Aquinas, it resembles them in one key way: women’s personhood is understood through the lens of her anatomical capacity to become pregnant and not the other way around.

In the 20th century, the Catholic Church began to redefine traditional marriage and to overturn its thinking about whether or not woman’s inequality to man within marriage was both natural and divinely-ordained.  The Church’s reversal of its teaching on the necessity of woman’s subjection to man in marriage is so extensive that John Paul II, going against the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture, interprets Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians to be calling not for the subjection of wives to husbands but a “mutual” subjection between spouses.[32] Interestingly, while John Paul II maintains church teaching that husband “is called the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church,” he concludes that only in the case of the Church’s subjection to Christ is spousal subjection one-sided.[33] Why this is so he does not explain.

Undoubtedly, many insist that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, since it has always taught that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.  Indeed, in this respect, church teaching on marriage has not changed.  However, modern people may not realize that for centuries male headship was considered to be just as sacred and unquestionable part of marriage as some consider heterosexuality to be today (for civil marriage).  Since sexual equality is today a largely uncontroversial issue, it is difficult to understand just how radical and fundamental a shift sexual equality within marriage was.   For most of church history, the suggestion that women are equal to their husbands in marriage would have been just as unthinkable and unholy as the contemporary suggestion that marriage could be open to people of the same-sex is to some today.  My intent here is not to argue that these two issues are identical, but only to underscore by comparison just how radically church teaching on marriage has changed.

[1] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. I.85.5 [2] Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologiae. I.1.1 [3] Augustine, “Soliloquys,” #17 [4] Ibid, #17 [5] On the Good of Marriage 1.1 [6] Augustine, City of God. Chapter XXII, 17. [7] Augustine, “Literal Meaning of Genesis.” Chapter 22. [8] Sermon 51, #23 [9] ibid, #24 [10] Summa Theologiae I, 92.1 [11] Ibid, 92.1 [12] Ibid, 92.3 [13] Ibid, 93.4 [14] Ibid, 93.4 [15] Ibid, 92.2 [16] Ibid, 92.1 [17] Ibid, 92.1 [18] Ibid, 99.2 [19] JP II, “Letter to Women.” Paragraph 7. [20] Benedict. Deus Caritas Est. Paragraph 11. [21] Casti Connubi, 26 [22] Casti Connubi, 28 [23] Casti Connubi, 74 [24] Casti Connubi, 74 [25] 6 September 1961, 7 [26] 6 September 1961, 7 [27] 6 September 1961, 7 [28] The Confessions, Ch 22 #34 [29] Summa Theologiae II-II, 26.10 [30] Summa Theologiae: Supplement, 39.1 [31] Mulieris Dignitatem, #18 [32] Mulieris Dignitatem, 24 [33] Mulieris Dignitatem, 24

26 thoughts

  1. Geeze, THANK YOU.

    I feel as though this post is getting at a basic presupposition that undergirds a lot of disagreement between more progressive Catholics and their more conservative counterparts. Thanks for putting it on the table and making it an issue in its own right–perhaps it will facilitate more productive conversations.

  2. Katie,

    This is a wonderful brief case study; thank you. The single most interesting thing it points to for me is that what might be called “mainstream” conservative Catholics, represented by JPII and Benedict and the young conservatives who have come of age in their papacies, do in fact welcome change in the Church: certainly, as you note, on the equal dignity of women, but also on a lot of the things opened up by Vatican II (e.g. expanded role for the laity, the respect due to the Jews, renewed appreciation for the Orthodox, freedom of religion) and after (e.g. vernacular liturgies, which they tend to see as perfectly normal; priestly celibacy). This is something I think progressive Catholics can be slow to recognize, or when they recognize, can see as a simple inconsistency: you accept change here; why are you so unsympathetic to further change over there?

    And that is the important question in the search for what Elizabeth calls “more productive conversations”: why is it that certain changes are seen to be in good faith, as when Opus Dei pushes hard for lay rights and a better theological appreciation of the priesthood of all believers (contradicting clericalist statements in the tradition), and others, in particular feminist concerns, are viewed with mistrust? Why can we have women equal and essentially different but not women equal and essentially the same?

    There is surely no simple answer, but my sense is that the worry is almost as much about the spirit of the thing as it is about the changes themselves. Again, this is more a sense than a firm position, and I am not quite sure how to articulate it, but perhaps as a first approximation we could say that it is a worry about the hermeneutics of suspicion as applied to the tradition. What the conservatives want is change without suspicion. And that may sound like a contradiction, as if we should approach the tradition like it’s always right and then treat it like it’s sometimes wrong, as if we could both trust its judgments and modify them; but if you call it a paradox instead of a contradiction, I think that’s exactly what they want. And I don’t know that it’s impossible. Think of the way St. Thomas uses his authorities, both secular and religious: he approaches neither Aristotle nor Augustine with a hermeneutics of suspicion, exactly, but he ends up modifying both. Or again, given that all doctrine has developed over time, do we think that all through time Catholics have approached their tradition with suspicion?

    I don’t know; does this sound remotely fair to either side? Perhaps how Aquinas approached Augustine is precisely what people mean by hermeneutics of suspicion; or perhaps the term itself is used too equivocally to be of much use; I am not sure. Still, something in this neighborhood is behind the discomfort with many of these proposed changes, and if that’s so, the “productive conversations” would then turn on what the hermeneutics of suspicion amounts to, and whether it is in fact necessary to the project of developing the tradition at the present moment.

    Such at least is my tentative suggestion for going forward…

  3. Ross, thanks so much for your comments. I’m going to offer a response here but please let me know if I have left something out.

    As far as your question about the hermeneutics of suspicion, I think that the way that women, the poor (especially in our United Statesian context, we must give priority to the voices and experience of people of color as we recognize that white supremacy is the central organizing principle of our society), and lesbians, gays, and transgendered persons approach tradition must be one of suspicion since the tradition’s (and here I mean, pretty much everything that came before) relationship to these peoples was one of opposition, oppression, exclusion, and sometimes elimination (see for example the violent elimination of gays and lesbians from not just history but from existence, which is paralleled by the use of Christianity to endorse violent campaigns against the poor throughout history).

    So, the way women or people of color relate to the tradition is fundamentally different from the way Aquinas relates to Aristotle, for example. In fact, I would argue (and I think James Cone in “God of the Oppressed” makes as good a case of this as anyone) that in light of this, EVERYONE, even those who occupy positions of privilege that have been considered normative and have been uniquely equipped with the power to define who others are (men with respect to women; whites with respect to people of color; heterosexuals with respects to lesbians and gays.) should look at tradition suspiciously.

    Also remember that Aquinas, while not, as you astutely point out, merely accepting Aristotle or Augustine uncritically, was unaware of the forces of ideology and power lurking behind the production of knowledge in human history. This type of awareness of ideology and the sociology of knowledge was not available to him (We can debate to what extent this ignorance was culpable–James Cone argues that Aquinas was blind to the political implications of the Jesus as the liberator of the poor because he was not a victim of his society–but regardless of whether he was culpable for this, we must still acknowledge the effect of his social location on his theology, however brilliant)

    So yea, patriarchy/sexism, heterosexism, a depoliticization of the gospel which served the sociopolitical interests of the wealthy are all ideologies that have drastically distorted the church’s understanding of the gospel. I don’t think any of these distortions are minor or peripheral. Until we purge ourselves of these ideologies, “tradition” especially when “tradition” is used as a way to silence the type of “productive conversations” you so rightly call for, I think we have no choice but to view the tradition with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

    I mean, don’t you think we should view a tradition that found slavery conditionally acceptable for hundreds and hundreds of years is one worthy of being viewed suspiciously?

    So I guess what I would want to say is that no matter what position one wants to argue for (pro women’s ordination or against, for example) one cannot merely point to some authority or allegedly unbroken precedent from the past (see Bridget’s latest post about Junia, an apostle, and about St. Bridget’s ordination as bishop, which by themselves question whether male-only ordination is even an unbroken precedent).

    Instead, we have to actually make a case for our positions. We can not merely say that such and such has been the case, but that it should continue to be the case. We have to actually look at the world and not just at the texts of the past.

    I think sometimes people want to set some a priori limit on how much the church can change. They might want to shut down discussion or debate once a certain “quota” of change has been filled. I think we should resist this and see it as a type of insecurity or pretentious need for control.

    Also, especially in light of the critiques of feminist/womanist/mujerista; gay and lesbian and black theologies, we must also be suspicious of the tradition because not everyone has gotten to speak. This is especially problematic in the Catholic church when those with the power to say what is true and what is not often are nearly identical with the persons who dominate society (men, heterosexuals–especially in light of the recent prohibition of openly gay, though celibate men from the priesthood, latinos–until very recently, Latinos in the US were all but prohibited from the priesthood..the same with African-Americans, etc…see Brian Massingale’s work for this…

    From my position, I would rejoice if the Catholic church actually committed itself to “productive conversation.” At least when it comes to the hierarchy considered in general, they seem to see “conversation” as the antithesis of catholic identity. They seem to desire a catholicism of submission to their will rather than conversation–obviously because they think the truth is already settled and well-established. If the hierarchy actually looked at the issue of women’s ordination seriously rather than merely saying this issue cannot be discussed, if they actually listened to gays and lesbians and looked at the reality of their lives, etc etc, if they not just talked, but listened, I would rejoice.

    Of course, deciding what of tradition to keep and what to reject is a matter of prudence and TRULY communal discernment. It is no easy process and I don’t think we can predict in advance how it will go. All we can do is keep talking and listening to one another and trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Katie,

    I don’t want to argue one side or the other of this, because frankly I just haven’t read enough to understand what is claimed and what all’s at stake; I have, not arguments or even thoughts, but undeveloped and contradictory intuitions. So my real focus is on trying to characterize the disagreement rather than defend any one position. I bring up St. Thomas, for instance, more to show that this paradoxical idea of change without suspicion is practicable, even should it prove undesirable. But I’m glad for your defense, especially the mention of sources – something to look into.

    Happy (Somber?) All Souls,


    1. Hey Ross,
      Yea. thanks again for your post. I really like your desire to map out the disagreement–I think that is very important and it is quite possible that substantively, we don’t really disagree much! 🙂 From what I can tell, if we do disagree, it will be over exactly what the word “suspicion” means or how far it extends. I hope you didn’t take from my post that I was “accusing” you of being on one side or the other, I think I was trying to present a sort of defense for “suspicion” of the “tradition.” If “suspicion” means to discard rather than critically engage, then I think we’d probably both be against suspicion. I think people like Cone make a great case for why a certain type of suspicion is a requirement.

      Yea. so, I guess if we want to continue this discussion, I think you are right that we would do best to figure out exactly what “suspicion” means.

      1. It occurs to me that we can also flip this on its head. Since we are all sinners with our own cultural locations, there is a level of suspicion that we must bring to our own ideas/experiences/conclusions as well (you make this point in your post on white privilege). And if that’s true, then the conservative can in some sense be seen as emphasizing a hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to ourselves and our contemporaries and, because this is a zero-sum game, correspondingly de-emphasizing suspicion as it applies to the tradition. Thus the question becomes, what constitutes grounds for being more suspicious of the tradition than of ourselves? And here perhaps the progressive will suggest that it is enough to tell a plausible story about systematic bias and its effect upon the question at hand (e.g. patriarchy and male priesthood), while the conservative will emphasize how the Holy Spirit works to correct such biases and so will suggest that we need more than just this sort of story (although I’m not entirely sure what more).

        That’s just a thought. I feel a little like I’m reinventing the wheel here, though; I need to look at the literature on this topic. Thanks for helping me begin to work through this stuff,


      2. Ross,
        You are right on about the fact that we are all sinners and therefore we should also be suspicious of ourselves. For thinkers like James Cone and Sobrino, this is exactly why they stress the importance of checking our theologies against the standard of Scripture. As Cone, Sobrino and others argue, Jesus’ clear preference for the poor and oppressed, is the standard by which we should judge ourselves. So yes, any theology that contradicts who Jesus was and how Jesus lived and how Jesus told us to live; any theology that contradicts Jesus’ opposition to and defeat of the principalities and powers (aka evil) in life and on the cross; any theology that carries on as though the Resurrection never happened, that forgets that we are called to live as though the resurrection makes a difference; any theology that ignores the continuity between God’s liberating desire in Exodus and the Prophets that Jesus says he comes to fulfill (I came to liberate the captives, etc) is not a Christian theology.

        So yes, even theologies of the oppressed can be idolatrous when they forget this. Liberation theologies possess an unprecedented amount of humility about the distorting effects of human social location.

        So Cone and Sobrino don’t believe the poor are infalliable, they are simply pointing out that the social location of the oppressed bears much more in common with the social location of Jesus (as a colonized Jew living in the Roman Empire), that the social location of the oppressed bears more in common with that of the Israelites in Egyptian bondage etc than does that of the rich.

        And I agree with you that the Holy SPirit has preserved the truth throughout history, but I just disagree that this truth was reliably preserved in the authorities and educated people (who are the only ones who thoughts survive in the form of writings.) If this was true, then why did so many Christians hold slaves? Your claim that the Holy Spirit has preserved those who anoint themselves preservers of the tradition from being negatively affected by their social privilege has no historical backing. The Holy Spirit more reliably preserved the truth in the oppressed communities–African-American slaves knew long before any white Christian that God was on their side and that God was against their slave masters.

        If you look at history and at our current society, I don’t see how anyone can say that the Holy Spirit ensures that the rich are saved from their biases. In fact, the rich seem to act in accordance with their self-interest more than anyone else–because they have the power to make their desires reality and because they have the arrogance to confuse their desires with God’s will for humanity.

        And our goal is not to be faithful to the tradition, but to God through Jesus Christ. Our loyalty to tradition is dependent upon the extent to which it witnesses to Jesus’ desire that good news be brought to the poor, that the captives and the oppressed be set free. Note, Jesus is good news FOR THE POOR. It is the poor who are blessed. In fact, in Mathew 25, Jesus identifies himself explicitly with the poor and outcast. And the only person whom Jesus explicitly identifies as being in hell is the rich man. It can’t get much clearer than that.

        To pretend that in Jesus’ eyes all sins are relative is just not true. That’s something we people of privilege like to tell ourselves so that we don’t have to radically change the way we live, so that we can still be rich and Christian. But Jesus tells us that’s not true. Because we have so much to lose, we are the ones most likely to twist the gospel to our own ends, spiritualizing inconvenient commands, or skipping over Jesus’ ministry all together and building an abstract philosophical meaning of atonement. It is the poor who see the gospel for what it is because they already know that oppression is a sin, they have nothing to gain by denying this fact.

      3. or, to stick directly to our topic, if the Holy Spirit does protect the privileged and powerful from their biases (or perhaps we should say if the social location of the rich does not, in most cases, keep them from being open to the Holy Spirit), then why did a male-supremacist Church operating in male-supremacist societies insist on the superiority on men to women for 1975 years? It was only until the women’s movement started asserting itself in society (about 1850 or so) that ideas about sexual equality began to change. The Church did not change its views on women until society changed. Society did not change because men suddenly became enlightened. Society changed when women demanded and asserted their equality. As MLK said, oppressors never voluntarily surrender their privilege. Similarly, the theological academy didn’t start to talk about sexual equality until women started to do theology (about 35 years ago…before that women were systematically excluded from theological training, just as african-americans, latinos, and native americans had been.)

        If you are going to say that the Holy Spirit protects the self-anointed definers of Truth and Tradition from the error of their privileged social locations, then it seems to me as though you have to say that official church teaching can never be wrong in any significant way. Or, I guess you have to explain why the insistence on male supremacy for 1975 years of the church tradition was either the will of the Holy Spirit or due to some other factor besides the fact that men were in charge.

        So that fact alone, that if it weren’t for the assertions of women we can be pretty sure men STILL would be keeping us out of universities and theological academies and political office and the voting booth etc, seems pretty good evidence that, those deprived of freedom and full humanity are the ones most likely to possess an understanding of humanity and freedom that is truly Christian. This doesn’t of course mean that women cannot be male supremacists, of course, nor that men can’t be feminists, it simply means that women are better equipped to understand that sexism is wrong than men are.

  5. I think what seems missing from this conversation, up to this point, is that those who claim a hermeneutic of suspicion are actually rooting themselves in the Tradition. So while we may be working with a hermeneutic of suspicion, the suspicion is of those voices historically privileged by the Tradition, seeking to bring forward other voices, perspectives, images, etc. With this in mind, I want to emphasize that the Church is not only the theological developments that has historically been privileged nor the hierarchical magisterium, but also the entire community of believers, the sacramental Body of Christ. I think it is important to keep this broader view of Tradition and Church in mind in order to keep open the possibility of the Holy Spirit, yes working in the Church, but potentially working through the Church in those voices that are critical of those elements of the Tradition which have been brought to the fore to the neglect of others. Thus, feminist and liberationist theologies are in some ways, seeking to call the Tradition back to itself. As M. Catherine Hilkert said in class once, the titles “progressive” and “conservative” do not really work if we are all trying to CONSERVE the Tradition.

    1. yea, thanks Megan. I think you have just articulated something I was trying to get at earlier. I’m not against the past. I just want to elevate a marginalized part of the tradition. So, for example, I think the religion of African-American slaves, though not perfect, was a much more accurate example of Christianity than the Christianity professed by the vast majority of white Americans.

    2. I think this is right, Megan. Certainly the stories about bias we tell should themselves be based on the tradition, on what it sees as distortive.

      Still, what I’m trying to do is track the real disagreement between conservatives and progressives – even if both want to conserve and both recognize progress, there remains some sort of difference – and I am wary of getting so general in our characterizations that we lose sight of the disagreement. We don’t want to say peace, peace, when there is no peace. So you’re right to say that disagreement with the tradition might be based on the tradition itself, but that just presents the same question in a different light: what (traditional) criteria do we use to reject part of the tradition? For it still seems to me that the conservative is going to have more criteria than the progressive, that the conservative will require a higher standard of proof to show that the tradition is rejecting itself (as it were), and that in clarifying these criteria and these standards, we might start getting a better characterization of the disagreement.

      Perhaps the present vs. the past stuff just confused the matter. Perhaps the way to say it is this: the conservative is more concerned with individual sin and fallibility, the first of which the Holy Spirit overcomes in the saints and the second of which it overcomes by the test of acceptance in the Church, but both of which we only know to be overcome retrospectively; whereas the progressive is more concerned with systematic bias, which is overcome simply by attending to those in different social circumstances and so is something we can see as overcome right now. In other words, the problems that trouble the conservative are most clearly known to be avoided after the fact, whereas those that trouble the progressive can be seen to be avoided in the present moment.

      What criteria, then, are being used to reject a belief of the past? I’m still not quite sure. The progressive tends to suggest that we need an argument for how the social position of those formulating the belief made them less Christlike than the social position of those now objecting to it – what I called before ‘systematic bias.’ And still, I think, conservatives will find this insufficient; and still I don’t know what exactly they would suggest instead. Perhaps it is something about how the personal and social situation taken together make the proponents less Christlike than the opponents. This would imply, what I think is the case, that it is not so much what Katie calls “the authorities and educated” that matter for conservatives as it is the saints and the everyday faithful who have come to favor particular thinkers over others (Aquinas over Occam, e.g.).

      I don’t know; but this does seem like a productive direction to me.

      1. I think this is part of the story. But I would disagree that it’s where the issue turns. I think the issue is more about which voices, both in the present and past, we value as authoritative and theologically rich. For example, feminist theology started simply when women began to study theology and saw some of the problems. I would also object to a dichotomy about personal sin (conservatives) versus structural sin (progressives) because I think what progressives are trying to assert is that our personal sin is linked to, and makes us complicit in, broader societal problems. Just to complicate what you’re saying here a little bit.

      2. I personally would be hesitant to separate personal, individual sins from social sins. This does mean individuals don’t possess individual culpability for their sins, but, as the sacrament of confession reminds us, there is no truly individual sin, just as there are no autonomous individuals.

        Also, empirically, it is also true that people who are socially privileged are much more likely to want to focus on so-called personal sins while it is people who are oppressed who prophetically remind us to also focus on social sins. They also point out that the reason people of privilege want to privilege personal sins is because doing so will leave their privilege intact.

        Black theologians have often criticized the Catholic Church for the fact that during the 60s it was almost single-mindedly devoted to issues of contraception (supposedly, a personal sin which in reality possesses a deeply social component) and said and did almost nothing about racism. This is not because black theologians don’t care about sexual ethics. Instead, their outrage flows from the fact that prioritizing the fight against birth control over the fight against racism is clearly one that reflected not just a white perspective but worse white power.

        I don’t think progressives (well, I’ll just speak for myself) I don’t want to forget about personal sin, I’m just saying that it’s not enough. Personal sins always have a social dimension both because we are social and because all sins have a social effect.

        Also, I think we have to ground our understanding of sin (as the converse of discipleship) in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What are the sins Jesus was worried about? So, again, I think this distinction between social and personal is our invention and not one that really has much to do with Jesus.

        I think for me the key is who is setting the agenda? Who is saying that the fight against birth control is more important than the fight against white supremacy? The point is that we should think it odd that the people who are in power in the church are almost identical to the people who are in power in society.

        It sounds to me (and please let me know if I’m mischaracterizing) that you want a certain small group of ecclesial elites to determine both tradition and theological and ethical orthodoxy, which, unless you disagree with current church teaching, will be all heterosexual men, and unless we can think of a strategy to oppose current church practices, will be composed almost entirely of men from the racially, ethnically, and economically dominant groups in their respective societies.

        Whereas to me, authority is more decentered than that. We know that by looking at history, by seeing that those charged with authority didn’t always ‘get it.” Sometimes, it was those marginalized or labelled sinners or subhuman who were the true defenders of orthodoxy. So yes, my idea will be more messy. We cannot institutionalize the Holy Spirit nor can we control it or predict how She will reveal herself in human history.

        Also, you keep expressing dissatisfaction with systematic bias, but I’m not really sure why. I would benefit from a clarification of exactly what is your critique of my claim that the magisterium is not always the best diviner of God’s will. You seem to disagree but you haven’t yet explained why or given evidence that the judgements of the magisterium have not been significantly deformed by the power and various forms of social privilege.

        I am also not sure I understand your claim about retrospective understanding and understanding in the moment. As my post argues, progressives are especially aware that the sins of the present are not perceived as such until the future. I’m also confused about your claim that the conservative is more concerned about individual sin and falliabilty because my call for us to pay attention to social privilege is a call for individuals of privilege to be responsible for their privilege and to heed the gospel call to “sell all that we have and follow Jesus.” I am even more confused by the fallibility claim since the entire thrust of my argument here has been that, because they have social privilege, church authorities are often more falliable than the poor and oppressed when it comes to perceiving the truth of the gospel. Whereas, if I am understanding you correctly, the main thrust of your argument is to defend the infalliability of the tradition, conventionally understood.

        I really worry whether or not you are just trying to get out of accepting the fact that your social privilege is incompatible with your discipleship. If James Cone were here, he might say that you are trying to find a way to say that you can be “white and Christian at the same time.”

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that instead of trying to draw distinctions between the so-called conservative and progressive positions (your terms, not mine) in terms that are pleasing to you, I would prefer it if you actually argued for a certain hermeneutic, that is grounded in history (both of the world and the church) and Scripture. Because right now, it really seems like we are building sand castles in the sky unless we talk specifics.

      3. perhaps I should clarify my frustration: in addition to wondering what exactly is your proof for the claim that the rich and powerful of the church are better able to know God’s truth than are the powerless, I wonder also what is at stake for you, personally, in hanging on to this notion that the ecclesial elites aka magisterium are the true keepers of orthodoxy?

        What are you worried will be lost if we acknowledge the fact that “official” church teaching not only has been wrong, but can be wrong again?

  6. also, if you want to get a more in depth and articulate example on my views on this issue, you can check out a paper I wrote about Las Casas and Haiti


    also, I want to clarify that you seem to concerned about the fact that “present” is not necessarily better than “the past” (with which I agree) while I am more emphasizing that the argument is not over the superiority of present to past or one era to another, but of certain social locations over others. THe poor, of whatever time, will be better equipped to understand and live the gospel than will the rich.

    You seem to be more invested in validating the past while I am more invested in invalidating the presumptions of the powerful.

  7. This is a good reminder about the often disruptive changes to church teaching.

    Do you think something similar can be said about marriage and its development as a “sacrament”?

    What about the issue of changing attitudes towards the meaning of sex within marriage? I’ve heard it argued somewhere that church teaching used to favor the “procreative” function of sex over its unitive dimension and that slowly but surely the two have become equal in recent church documents. Of course, some would want to argue that that’s always been the case.

  8. PS–I think the “conservative/progressive” dichotomy was first used by me in a more colloquial fashion. So um…I hope those “more productive conversations” are now happening…

  9. I’m sorry if I’m being frustrating by not taking a position; I am genuinely undecided about these questions. Still, I am realizing that I do want to defend a position, it’s just not in the conservative vs. progressive line. What I want to defend is the idea that these disagreements about hermeneutics are rationally decidable. This may seem self-evident, but it’s not, quite. What I want to avoid is a sort of determinism where certain people trust certain authorities because of their social situation and certain people trust others and that’s all we can say about it. The argument that worries me is the one that ends with: “You see the dominant voices in the tradition as less sinful because they are more like you, but if you were in my situation, you’d see that they’re more sinful.” That sort of position doesn’t give people on the other side any real reason to switch; the decision to be on one side or the other isn’t ultimately a reasoned one. I’m looking for a way to characterize the disagreement that doesn’t turn into that. So I like your complications, Megan, but I want to get more at why the different sides choose different authorities, not just that they do. I think feminist methodology gives genuine and communicable reasons why, but trying to identify how these reasons differ from the reasons conservatives give for trusting their authorities is proving difficult.

    Katie, to answer your two clarified questions: 1) I don’t know that the ecclesial elites are the true keepers of orthodoxy; as I said, I haven’t worked out my intuitions on the subject, and my sense is that even conservatives look more to the saints than to encyclicals. Von Balthasar set the tone for how a lot of conservatives approach the tradition, and he always struck me as much more interested in the saints than in ecclesial authorities (e.g. in his approach to theopaschism).

    2) I’m not worried about acknowledging that ‘official’ teaching can be wrong. Indeed, that’s my starting point. But I then want to get at the principles that allow us to determine when that is, to determine what is erroneous and what not. My hope is that we can have a debate about reasons at this level, at the level of principles.

    Perhaps the answer is that there are no articulable principles, that it’s a mistake to try to impose them: these decisions aren’t made by referring to principles but by a sort of phroenesis – or really, since this is more a question of speculative than practical reason, by what Newman called the Illative Sense – and in particular, by the Illative Sense of the oppressed. That is, we can’t give rules for determining when to call BS on the tradition, but the well-formed souls will know it when they see it. Still, to add that last bit about deferring to the oppressed is to put forward at least one principle even for oppressors: when the present downtrodden disagree with the privileged of the past, and we can plausibly link the past’s belief to their privilege, side with the present. It is my sense that conservatives demur here. I suspect they will appeal to the power of the Holy Spirit acting in the saints to produce truths both through and in spite of social location, in something like the way that She worked through the machinations at Nicea. But is that really realistic? Is it wishful thinking, that the Spirit would ride so roughshod over our social situation? And what principles do these conservatives propose as an alternative for deciding what to reject?

    Anyway, I should say that I very much like what you write about privilege here, Katie. And there is something… acerbic? about that James Cone quote – not acerbic like Jerome, which would be too much, but more like a Tertullian – that I find delightful. I do think we have a responsibility to cease to be white and male and, in a rather more literal sense, rich in order to be Christlike, but I’m undecided on how much I think the saints and faithful before me were able to achieve that, and how much their achievement is reflected in the thoughts they’ve passed down. If you need proof of my sincere desire, esp. re: poverty, just ask my wife, as it aggravates her to no end.

    In Christ,


    1. Ross,

      I see what you’re saying. (Before I wasn’t trying to clear up all the ambiguity, so much as keep in mind that it’s not tradition vs. hermeneutics of suspicion, etc). Maybe the best way to go about thinking about this would be to look at some of the foundational texts to see what they’re doing? (Did you take Fundamentals of Systematcs? If not maybe starting with something along those lines would be good too…) Also, I don’t have the energy to totally sort it all out–but I think I would want to put something about the role of conversion, eyes becoming opened to the realities of those who suffer, etc? I know that doesn’t solve all the problems but I’m wary of thinking of the working of the Spirit in a purely rational way.

    2. Also, out of curiosity: Is this a theoretical problem for you? Or are there moves made by these various theologies in relation to the otherwise “mainstream” (not the best phrasing for sure) Tradition? For example, is there a move that feminist theologians consistently make or an aspect of the Tradition that gets removed that you think goes too far?

    3. Ross, thanks again for your comments and for hanging in there with me as we wrestle with these very important issues!

      I agree with you about the need to “refer to principles…that allow us to determine…what is erroneous and what not.”
      I would encourage you to read James Cone’s “God of the Oppressed” because he spends a lot of time talking about this exact issue. Sobrino in Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator doesn’t address this issue as explicitly as Cone does, but it is definitely there. In fact, I think this is exactly what liberation theologies are trying to tell the global church–it cannot be just voice or one center of power; while we must be suspicious of all human knowledge, we must be especially suspicious of the opinions of the dominant classes….all of these theologies in one way or another are calls to conversion to the church of the poor, not just intellectually, but with our lives.

      Anyways, Cone, Sobrino, and others are much more intelligent and Spirit-filled than I will ever be, so I would encourage you to bring your very important questions to them. My hunch is that it is with dialogue through them and authors like them that you will have the space to find the answers you’re looking for. And please report back!

  10. Thanks much for this advice. I’ve read a little bit in Sobrino but nothing of Cone, whose explicitness might suit me better.

    Megan, I’ll have to read more and perhaps follow this blog more to answer your question. If I do, I’ll try to comment when I have a worry, theoretical or otherwise. In general I like the way feminist theology complicates and recovers parts of the tradition, but I get more worried when it starts denying bits (though, as I said, that’s sometimes necessary). So, for instance, I like the more complex picture of Mary we get by considering her as our sister, but I worry when that is taken to deny that she is our mother (I’m not saying that Johnson does this). It seems to me that a lot of what is interesting about the tradition is that we have diverse and sometimes contradictory symbols in play – to take another Marian example, she can be viewed as both spouse and mother of Christ – and that is lost if the favored symbol is taken to replace the unfavored one.

  11. I just wanted to let you know that this is agreat post….I am using it in an RCIA class to talk about ecclesiology but also as a starting point to talking about sex, women, homosexuality, ordination etc. Thanks.

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