The canonization of St. Joan of Arc was delayed more than 500 years because, get this, she wore men’s clothing. Arrayed in battle garb, the French heroine famously led her nation to victory over the English and allowed the coronation of the French King Charles VII. Yet gender roles were so respected in the pre-modern world that the maid of Orleans for all her sanctity and service had to wait until 1920 to be declared a saint by Pope Benedict XV. Customary gender roles have faded precipitously in the last half-century. Older readers no doubt grew up in homes where mom was the housekeeper and dad was the breadwinner. Now there are no vocations (save one) that are not open to both men and women. Medicine, law, science, education, military, space, politics: males and females are both free to pursue their ambition in any field. But equality of opportunity in the secular world might seem to occasion some difficulty when transferred to the Christian family unit.
The Scriptures, which cannot be broken, state clearly in a passage that will be read at Mass this coming weekend, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.” These are bold words from St. Paul. The key word here is not wives or husbands or subordinate. The key word here, as should be expected, is Christ. St. Paul’s message is not that husbands should dominate their wives or that wives should be subservient to their husbands. Rather both husband and wife should first be open to Christ, allowing Christ to inform a man’s spousal and paternal roles as well as a woman’s spousal and maternal roles. A husband who has conformed himself to Christ will be respectful of his wife’s unique feminine talents encouraging her to contribute to the household through her special female gifts.
A wife who has conformed herself to Christ will be respectful of her husband’s unique masculine talents likewise encouraging him to contribute to the household through his special male gifts. Conformity to Christ enables a couple to be aware of their own personal gifts as well as the personal gifts of their spouse. The wife consequently will not be so much subordinate to her husband as she will be supportive of her husband, recognizing his gifts and talents as God-given and therefore his decisions to be respected. Such support does not preclude marital discussions but rather demands discussion so that both spouses will understand the full consequences of their collaboration.
St. Paul’s writings certainly do not let husbands off the hook. The Apostle writes, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her…So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Again Christ is the model for spousal conduct. Christ did not dominate or overshadow or mistreat his Church in any way. Rather Christ “handed himself over for her.” Christ made himself subservient to the needs of the Church. He emptied himself that the Church might come alive and grow and mature. The good husband will do the same for his wife. The good husband will recognize his wife’s potential as well as her needs. He will see her as a distinct person equipped to build up family life in her unique way. He will nourish and cherish her, not ignore or disregard her, just as Christ nourishes and cherishes his Church in a respectful and even gentle way.
Christians should most importantly recall that St. Paul begins his sometimes controverted words on spousal relationships with this very sensible and sensitive advice: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” St. Paul is not dumping all the responsibility for marital accord into the lap of either the wife or the husband. Marriage is a mutual relationship of sensitivity and service. A husband must evoke his wife’s best qualities in service to the family. A wife must encourage the best qualities of her husband in service to the family. The Scriptural understanding of marriage is certainly not one of dominance between the spouses but rather one of service between both spouses, the one on behalf of the other. Genesis recognized from the beginning that in marriage “…the two shall become one flesh.” Openness to one another’s gifts, respect for one another’s talents, patience with one another’s faults, and perseverance in mutual growth are the marks of marital unity just as they are among the signs of the Church’s unity so dear to the heart of Christ and so necessary for the spread of the Gospel message.