How Catholics Read Scripture

Strange Notions (the place to be online for Catholic-Atheist dialogue) is running a super series on how Catholics approach Sacred Scripture. I’ve written on this briefly before, but if you want more detail but not a whole book, Mark Shea is your man.  Continue reading


The True Interpreters of Scripture: the Saints

Currently working my way through the first volume of BXVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, and came across this beauty, on the interpretation of Scripture:

The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone “lives through” and “suffers through” the sacred text.

As they Incarnate the Word, by living it, and conform themselves to Christ (the Word), the saints thus provide us with the most intense, vivid illustrations of the meaning of Sacred Scripture.

Awesome, no?


A Real Complementarian Stands Up

Yesterday I wrote in response to Rachel Held Evans’ post “Will the real complementarian please stand up?”

She has since added a few more questions to her list, so here’s my further thoughts:

I don’t think that’s a good measure at all. And to make it the primary one? It’s not only highly subjective, but the relevant connection necessary to justify making a negative sensation like feeling “threatened” the measuring stick of appropriate leadership and authority, is not at all clear to me.

Adam and Eve

Good question. Again, for Catholics there isn’t a problem, since the difference between the way a priest or bishop teaches and the way any layperson does, whether a man or a woman, is pretty clear. [At least, this is clear to me. I apologise if anyone is reading this and just going, “This priesthood thing solves NOTHING! What’s she on about?!]

It doesn’t teach this. Perhaps the best quote I’ve ever heard about how masculinity and femininity differ goes something like this:

Both men and women are called to strive for virtue (with love of God as the pinnacle of this obviously), and, depending on whether the individual person in question is male or female, those virtues as lived out by them, as appropriate to their particular circumstances, will take on a masculine or feminine hue. ~ Dietrich von Hildebrand

Ok that was massively paraphrased, sorry Dietrich. But I guess this question is really digging a little deeper into the profound mystery of what it really means, metaphysically, at the most fundamental level, to be male and female. Something I might go into more another time.

Stay posted: totally planning a (highly provocative) post on why Catholics are the only ones truly able to be “real complementarians”.


Catholic Complementarianism

Rachel Evans has written a post entitled “Will the real complementarian please stand up?” [For those who don’t know what this is, in brief from wiki: Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in JudaismChristianity, and Islam,[1] that men and women have different but complementaryroles and responsibilities in marriagefamily life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. Contrasting viewpoints maintain either that women and men should share identical authority and responsibilities in marriage, religion and elsewhere (Egalitarianism), or that men and women are of intrinsically different worth (a position usually known as chauvinism, usually male, although female varieties do exist).] In it she talks about how complementarians of all shapes and sizes have criticised her book for various things, including not presenting complementarianism accurately:

The problem with accurately portraying what complementarians believe about “biblical womanhood” is that complementarians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical womanhood.” 

She raises a good question:

So my question for complementarians is this:  What is biblical womanhood and who gets to define it?

My point here is not to discredit a movement for having a diversity of perspectives within it. (I’m a feminist, for heaven’s sake; I get it!My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” complementarians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarians have failed to produce it.  This should call into question the premise that Bible presents us with a single, straightforward blueprint for womanhood and that women who deviate from this blueprint are outside the will of God.

She then goes on to raise a bunch of other questions, mostly relating to what seem to be inconsistent interpretations of the Bible within the complementarian camp. Since the Catholic position is essentially complementarian, I thought I’d set about giving my understanding of the Catholic answers to these questions, which don’t really pose problems for us.

Rachel Held Evans

Before I do so, however, I’d like to make one observation: I thought it was interesting that one could pretty much replace ‘complementarian” with “Christian”, and one would have a pretty good summary of why Catholics take issue with Sola Scriptura. For example, taking my first quote from above:

The problem with accurately portraying what Christians believe about “biblical teaching” is that Christians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical teaching.” 


My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” Christians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical doctrine, Christians have failed to produce it. 

My point is this: this is not primarily a “complementarian” problem. It is a fundamental problem with the Protestant paradigm of Sola Scriptura, which is fissiparous [I’ve been wanting to use that word in a sentence for some time!] of its very nature.

Next: a summary of the Catholic view, in comparison to the Protestant complementarian and egalitarian camps (probably grossly over-simplified and generalised, I apologise):

Protestant egalitarian:  the teachings and example of Jesus point to a new way of healing, equality, and mutual submission within male and female relationships. There is to be no more power struggle, no more “ruling over” one another. I.e., men and women are equal with (almost?) no difference, or at least no difference in roles

Protestant complementarian (according to Rachel): hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. This sounds like different and not equal, but I’m not sure how many complementarians would profess that men and women are not equal in dignity.

Catholic complementarian: in the middle. Men and women are absolutely equal in dignity, made in the image and likeness of God, while masculinity and femininity each contribute something unique to humanity, with this contribution able to manifest itself in diverse ways.

So! To the questions!

One thing that frustrates me about complementarianism, as it is often expressed, is that it teaches men and women that God has specific expectations regarding gender roles but then fails to consistently or clearly explain exactly what those expectations are.  My hope is that readers will come to the end of the book reminded the Bible—this ancient, diverse, powerful, God-breathed text—is far too complex to be reduced to an adjective, and that womanhood was never meant to be reduced to a list of rules and roles.

But even more frustrating has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says.  For the past three years, on the blog and in the book, I’ve been asking questions about common complementarian positions on biblical womanhood. For example:

Rachel here links to a previous article of hers in which she fleshes out this idea of the “helper”. Catholics agree wholeheartedly with this understanding of “helper”, understanding that God gave the woman to man precisely to be His divine help or strength. While this certainly implies mutuality, harmony, and equality of dignity, I think she leaves out of the discussion another important word: “fit”.

This particular Hebrew words denotes “completion”, or “fitting in the piece of the puzzle that is lacking”. If you look at one side of a valley, the thing that “fits” or completes it is the other side. Thus woman brings something unique to humankind that was lacking in man, and not only is this thing something “extra”, but in fact is the perfect complement, or completion of humanity.

So, basically, we wouldn’t be trying to say that it refers to a subordinate in Gen. 2.

I don’t really have the time to read everything Rachel has written about the patriarchy (it seems quite a bit), but I suppose it refers primarily to men having authority to teach, and being the heads of their families. For Catholics neither of these are really an issue, as “teaching” in the sense that Paul talks about it is tied to the teaching of our bishops, who can only be men (for reasons completely unrelated to the complementarian debate), and so we have no problem with women lecturing in theology, leading bible studies, etc, which I understand are considered problematic in some Protestant circles. Family headship is something I might get to later…

I think it’s quite obvious that it’s a celebration of the woman who possesses wisdom, and what that might look like in action, and not a specific to-do list for all women in all times. [Well, that one was easy!]

Women can be found in the Catholic Church doing all the things these women did. The one thing I’ll be you won’t find any woman doing in either the Old or New Testaments is offering sacrifice, except through a (male) priest.

In the Catholic world, neither is not taken more seriously, they are taken together. My  friend Laura has what I think is a great post on submission over at Catholic Cravings.

I think that while the head covering injunction is specific in practice, it is not in principle.

The principle behind this was that how a woman wore her hair, until recently, was a symbol of her status. That included her social rank and her marital status. For men, their status was expressed in the kind of hat they wore.

When one comes to Church, social status is irrelevant. All come before God equal. So, how to express this? By having men and women each remove the symbol of their status as appropriate. In accordance with this, women continued to wear veils or hats in the Catholic Church up until about 50 years ago.

At some point, however (I’m being a bit vague because I’m going off my memory and am not certain of specifics), this ceased to be the case: women did their hair just however they pleased, and men, for the most part, stopped wearing hats. This made the wearing of head coverings a bit of a non-issue, although it obviously also coincided with the Vatican II upheavals, which basically meant that what had become a good and valued tradition of the Church was rather thoughtlessly thrown out, simply because it was technically “necessary” anymore. See Laura again for a fun post on this topic.

  • How can 1 Timothy 5 be used to characterize stay-at-home dads as “failures” when the context of those instructions is care for widows?

I’ve never heard this, but such an interpretation does indeed sound off.

No, it’s not the only way to honour God. But I think there is a place for talking about what constitutes the ideal way to organise family life, and once that’s been established, it puts us in a better position to figure out how to live in the non-ideal situations.

It doesn’t square.

This post is already much too long, so I’ll end it there!!

Update: More of Rachel’s questions answered here: