Reading the recently released papal letter “The Joy of Love,” I was surprised to see that it opens a “new” discussion of marriage and the family with a very old patriarchal trope from Psalm 128:
Blessed is every one who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands;
you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house . . . (see ch. 1, pp. 7-8)
Notwithstanding the “inclusive language” translating the male generic in Hebrew as “one,” there is no way around the fact that this psalm is addressed by a male God to men. It compares women to property owned and tended by men. Nor does it provide any opening to consider the blessings of same sex marriage.
It is perhaps not surprising that a document issued in the name of the “Holy Father” who sits at the apex of a male hierarchy fails to recognize that this much-beloved Biblical image pours salt on the wounds of women. It is precisely because women have been viewed as the vine (irrational nature) and not the tender of the vine (rational man), that there is a need for new teaching on marriage and the family. Nor is the image of marriage in which only one of the partners is a moral agent one that most lesbian and gay couples would affirm.
In response to the papal letter, Ross Douthat commented:
MODERNITY has left nearly every religious tradition in the Western world divided. The specific issues vary with the faith, but there is an essential sameness to what separates Reform Judaism from Orthodox Judaism, evangelical churches from mainline Protestantism, the liberal Episcopal Church from the conservative Anglican Church in North America. In each case, disagreements about the authority of tradition, the reliability of Scripture, and eventually the proper response to the Sexual Revolution have made it impossible for liberal and conservative believers to remain in community or communion.
Douthat is is not happy about this state of affairs, but he is right that the question of how to respond to the “Sexual Revolution,” or more correctly, to the movements to recognize the full humanity of women and LGBQT individuals and couples, raises issues about the authority of tradition and the reliability of the Bible.
This brings us back to Psalm 128. Is Psalm 128 a beautiful depiction of “the joy of love”? Or is it a patriarchal image in which the joy of “man” is portrayed by reducing woman to the ontological status of a vine? And if the latter, does this not, as feminists and others have been asserting for the past several decades, place a question mark over the authority of scriptures and traditions based upon them?
Though he is not happy with this state of affairs, Douthat argues that in the new letter, the Pope endorses an uneasy “truce” between conservatives and liberals in the Church. Leaving Church doctrine intact, the Pope casts his lot with those who use the theories of “conscience” and “discernment” to soften their impact. The Church will continue to affirm that the decisions to use most forms of birth control, to choose abortion, to divorce and remarry, to have sex outside marriage, or to live in homosexual partnerships or marriages are against Church teaching. The Pope encourages both clergy and laity to make their own judgments as to whether or not any of these decisions merit exclusion from the communion with the Church. As Douthat concludes, this ambiguous position does not provide a center that is likely to hold in a deeply divided church.
Individuals are hurt when they are excluded from communion when they follow their own consciences and make decisions contrary to the teaching of the Church. Perhaps the Pope’s new letter will ease the anguish of some of them. Others will remain estranged from a Church that continues to condemn them in its official teachings.
In focusing on individuals within the Church, the Pope chooses to ignore the on-going political impact of Church doctrines. As is well-known, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is working to deny all women and families access to birth control or abortion as part of the Affordable Care Act. In the United Nations, the Catholic Church continues to oppose family planning. The Church opposes gay marriage not just for Catholics–but for everyone. The Church’s impact on these issues is even greater in largely Roman Catholic countries.
In Poland a right-wing government supported by the Church has proposed a law outlawing and criminalizing abortion in all cases, with no exceptions for saving the life of the mother or allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest.
The “Holy Father” has failed to open a genuinely new discussion about the full humanity of women and LGBQT people in the Church. The challenges posed by these questions will require new theories of the authority of scripture and tradition. The Pope may fear that such an opening would undermine the notion of a hierarchical church and raise questions about the very notion of a “Holy Father.” He would be right. Still, these questions cannot be avoided in the long term. In the meantime, many Catholics will continue to “vote with their feet.” (Be sure to watch!)
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ. Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.