Yesterday, December 29th, Catholic parishes all over the world celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. To mark this feast, lectors read the following Scriptural passages: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Col 3: 12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.
Celebrated in the context of magisterial condemnation of lesbian and gay relationships, this feast also trumpets the singular superiority of heterosexuality. Many Catholics, most notably those who both love as a gay person and love gay people, often find this feast day painful. Surrounded by pews filled with babies bouncing on the knees of their heterosexual parents and struggling to remain attached to a church that tells them their families are unholy, many LGBT Catholics feel the Feast of the Holy Family like a wound.
This feast typically affirms fathers as ultimate authorities over (infantilized) wives and (feminized) children. Because God is male so too must men be gods. Male headship qualifies as both natural and divine. Women, especially those convinced of their equality to men, may also bristle at the church’s celebration and sacralization of patriarchal families.
With Sonja, I wish this were all a misunderstanding. I would love for the Bible to be innocent and its interpreters alone the guilty ones. While the church does tend to read Scripture through a patriarchal lens, Scripture still contains patriarchal passages. In light of this, I argue, we must find a way both to critique those who misinterpret Scripture while also conceding Scripture’s operation as a text of terror.
Indeed, one can offer a strong critique of the way the church uses Scripture. Indeed, one can question why it selects the texts that it does. Popular belief notwithstanding, Scripture does in fact celebrate non-traditional families. Ruth and Naomi form a family headed by two women; to each other, they pledge their undying devotion. Even if their relationship would not qualify as “sexual” according to the modern understanding of the term, it is undoubtedly covenantal. Recognizing this, many heterosexual couples select the love story of Naomi and Ruth to be read at their Catholic wedding masses. Are not Ruth and Naomi also a Holy Family?
One could also question the way priests interpret these readings during their homilies. Rather than evidence of the holiness of male headship, do these texts not also call it into question? While the Sirach reading extols the son who “honors,” “reveres,” and “takes care of” his father, the Gospels do not depict Jesus as particularly devoted to cultivating these virtues of filial devotion. He calls other men away from their families and family businesses. He even identifies filial hatred as a precondition of discipleship. He commits to a ministry that will lead to his early death, even though it will preclude him from caring for his father in old age as Sirach commands all sons to do.
Catholic interpreters typically make Mary and Joseph universal spousal prototypes. The story of the Holy Family’s exodus to Egypt becomes a parable about the importance of fatherly protection in light of their wives’ and children’s dependence on them. Joseph did indeed protect his family. But this story is quite specific. Rather than just a story that all fathers can relate to, this passage tells a tale of imperial and ethnic political persecution. Jesus’ identity–his divinity, his Jewishness, and his status as a colonized person–make him an enemy of the state. They also make the state an enemy of Jesus. Jesus is not just any baby; his parents are not just any mommy and daddy. Jesus and his parents have very little in common with many U.S. Catholics, who live cozy lives of upper middle class comfort.
In lifting Mary and Joseph up as a model for all families to follow, Catholic homeliests almost always omit her virginity. After all, the Catholic church maintains that Mary remained a virgin not just at the moment of Jesus’ conception, but all throughout her marriage to Joseph. Especially in light of recent papal theologies of the body, Mary’s virginity renders her very much unlike the Catholic model of wifely holiness.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit, baby Jesus is removed from the chain of patriarchal generation. While Jesus had a step father, he did not have a biological father. As Sojourner Truth thunders, “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” In patriarchal societies, to be the son of a father imbued boys and men with a power and dignity denied to daughters. His adoption by Joseph does not make his origins any less unnatural. Jesus is the man who neither has a natural father nor conceives natural sons. Perhaps in removing Jesus from natural processes of filiation, God offers a critique about the goodness of patriarchy.
This novel approach to a typically sexist text does not get the Bible off the hook altogether. Nor can we make patriarchal passages go away simply by ignoring them. We do not merely face a problem of bad interpretation or inexpert selection of texts. The words of wifely subordination still remain.
Catholic authorities increasingly try to rescue Paul’s words from the sin of sexism. The missal used by the parish at which I attended mass yesterday attempted to make the following apology for Paul. Paul’s command that wives be subordinate to their husbands, it argued, is “unfortunate” given the contemporary reality of “spousal abuse.” This explanation, though a step in the right direction, misses the point. First of all, wifely subordination represents an injustice even when husbands do not abuse their power. Wifely subordination qualifies as unjust and therefore unholy because women are equal to men. Second of all, this apologetic attempt also conveniently overlooks the connection between wifely subordination and spousal abuse. Spousal abuse would have occurred in Paul’s day, even if it would not have been recognized as such.
John Paul II attempted something similar. In his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, he argues that Paul’s commanding wives to be subordinate signifies “mutual subordination out of reverence for Christ” (24). John Paul’s intentions are admirable; his exegetical maneuver fails. If Paul wanted to encourage mutual subordination, he surely could have. Instead, he envisions obedience uni-directionally; wives obey husbands; slaves obey masters; children obey parents. We can not make these words mean their opposite.
Yet like many contemporary church-goers, John Paul desperately wants to. These words just do not sit right with a growing number of us. In its admission of sexual equality, recent magisterial authors have outpaced Paul in moral wisdom. Yet the church clings to these texts nonetheless.
We struggle with how to make sense of texts we know to be wrong. So we try to preserve the sanctity of Paul’s words by interpreting them differently, even at the expense of common sense. Perhaps we fear that if Paul is wrong, then God is not really guiding us. But shouldn’t we find a God who commands men to act as authorities over women much more terrifying than a God who allows his followers to be wrong?