Getting Scripture Wrong: A Response to Harriet Murphy

Dr. Harriet Murphy has taken a leap off a cliff of her own making in her broadside against my essay in Crisis on the female deaconate. She concludes that anyone (namely, me) who accepts the “literal” interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12-14—“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”—is somehow making the argument that “right reason” is limited to men only, and to hold to what Scripture actually says has become suspect, or as she puts it, “wholly unecclesial.”

Nonsense. Nowhere in my article do I say anything negative about women or imply that women are intellectually inferior.

I think that what Dr. Murphy really hopes for is to be justified in her modern presumptions. Unfortunately for her argument, and presumably for likeminded feminists, God didn’t come to earth to make us feel self satisfied about the world. Thankfully, he left his word in Scripture for our guide. But that is the one possibility that Dr. Murphy doesn’t want to address: that perhaps Scripture means what it says—that God intends for men and women to occupy different, but harmonious, roles in salvation history. Instead, she leaps to the conclusion that to support a reasonable reading of 1 Timothy (and thus denying women a role in the ordained clergy) is somehow to relegate women to “the second sex.”

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This leads me to ask: Dr. Murphy, what if the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to say what he did, and it has meaning for all times, including our own? Rather than accusing me of “rhetorical spins,” perhaps Dr. Murphy should read what the Second Vatican Council says about the interpretation of Scripture.

The Council spelled out the rules for interpreting a passage from Scripture—even its most troublesome ones. I refer to its Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, nos. 11-12). The Council teaches that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” To find out what is exactly being asserted by the author, “The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances … in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.”

So if we believe the Second Vatican Council, one cannot project a twenty-first century feminist interpretation into first century 1 Tim 2:12-14. No doubt, 1 Timothy sounds “harsh” to today’s feminist. Feminists assume that the literal meaning of 1 Timothy is due to a first century misogynistic culture which seeped into the Church at that time. But they forget that the secular culture and the belief of the Church in the first centuries was not the same. That’s precisely why the Christians were persecuted—they refused to follow the cruel culture of the time, which did relegate women to “the second sex.”

Feminists also ignore the fact that St. Paul bases the justification of his teaching in 1 Tim 2:12-14—not on culture—but on Divine Revelation in Genesis 3.

In other words, St. Paul was mindful of the fact that his teaching was anchored in Revelation and not in secular societal norms.

Indeed, from the very beginning of the Church, women have flourished: God chose Mary to be the most perfect human person in creation; he chose Mary Magdalene to be the first person to proclaim the Resurrection; women were admitted to the diaconate in order to assist other women in the rite of baptism; St. Paul refers to individual women in his ministry with admiration and respect; women have been equally represented with men on the martyrs’ racks and in the canon of saints; four women are ranked among the Doctors of the Church; two of them, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, certainly weren’t shy about holding men to accountability and they even called out bishops and a pope. Clearly, women were not second-class citizens in the Church for the past two millennia. And these strong, faithful women made their mark in a Church that accepted Paul’s understanding of Revelation as it pertained to the role of women in ecclesiastical and family life.

However, Dr. Murphy implies that God wants something different today. To make her theory fit, Dr. Murphy tries to turn the Magisterium into an independent investigative body that can do whatever it wants. She views the principle of “development of doctrine” as a kind of intellectual sporting event where the Church can “dig deep” into questions and “make interesting arguments.” Perhaps she thinks Pope Francis’ commission will be able to accomplish that. We shall see.

But Dr. Murphy confuses the role of the Magisterium with the role of God in Revelation. She takes “development of doctrine” to mean that Revelation itself can change when she says “not everything is set in stone.” Then she attributes this shallow interpretation to Bl. John Henry Newman. This only compounds her error, because Newman meant no such thing.

This is what Bl. John Henry Newman himself says about the development of doctrine: “A development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.” Newman quotes Vincentius of Lerins: “Let the soul’s religion,” he says, “imitate the law of the body, which, as years go on, develops indeed and opens out its due proportions, and yet remains identically what it was. Small are a baby’s limbs, a youth’s are larger, yet they are the same.” Elsewhere Vincent Lerins says that development can never be an “alteration” of Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. The “understanding” must make “progress” in the “same doctrine,” “same meaning,” and “same import” of what has already been revealed.

Dr. Murphy must understand that the Magisterium is not a law unto itself. The Second Vatican Council states that “this teaching office (the Magisterium) is not above the word of God but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on…” (Dei Verbum, no. 10).

Instead, Dr. Murphy attempts to spin her idea of “development of doctrine” through the intervention of the Magisterium. She tries to make it appear that Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis are critical of the Church’s past view of women and hint that her “feminine genius” be exercised in freedom—even to seek men’s roles. She does this by interpreting certain papal statements through a feminist lens. But the actual statements—in the correct context—show her arguments to be misleading or at least petty.

Dr. Murphy stated that Pope Paul VI asked that “Christian women lead the way in bringing non-Christian women into true liberation and emancipation in Christ. ”

Yes, this is true. But the reason that Catholic women should lead “non-Christian” women to true freedom and equality with men is because they have already obtained this in the Church! Paul VI stated at the close of the Second Vatican Council that “As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man.”

Dr. Murphy says that John’s Paul II’s document Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) “gives thanks to God for ‘the feminine genius’ of working behind the scenes to effect change invisibly.” She also says that John Paul II’s “Letter to Women (1995) urges women to use their baptismal authority to change the world.”

Yes, of course—we are all called to change the world! But that doesn’t mean that men and women have exactly the same roles and responsibilities.

John Paul II clearly pointed out in Mulieris Dignitatem (no. 10) that this “feminine genius” does not imply a “sameness” of male and female roles. He said that “even the rightful opposition of women” to the domination by men “must not under any condition lead to the ‘masculinization’ of women. In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality’.” He said that “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity” but they are “different.”

In fact, John Paul II says in his 1995 Letter to Women (no. 10) that, the “feminine genius” is epitomized by Our Lady’s “obedience to the word of God.” He called women to a “service” in imitation of the Virgin Mary flowing from their participation in the “‘common priesthood’ based on Baptism”—as distinct from the “service” of those called to ordained ministry (no. 11). John Paul II actually discouraged women from seeking masculine roles in the Church, like ordained ministry.

Dr. Murphy hints that Pope Francis does not agree with 1 Tim 2:12-14 when he says in no. 54 of Amoris Laetitia, that he rejects “cultures” that “considered women inferior” to men and the idea that “today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation.”

This is absurd. Francis is talking about sufferings of women in secular society, such as “enslavement” of women, “domestic violence” and “the exploitation and commercialization of the female body in the current media culture.” Obviously, the many reasons women are suffering in our cruel world has little to do with being denied roles in the Church.

Furthermore, since my essay to which Dr. Murphy objects was devoted exclusively to the permissibility of the female deaconate, I expressed no opinion on the role of women elsewhere in the Church, or secular society for that matter. Other distinguished theologians, for example, have studied more intensely the duties of husbands and wives, approving of St. Paul’s insistence on male authority in the family, while affirming the equal dignity and mutual sacrifice of both sexes. I leave readers to decide for themselves how proper authority in the family should be exercised according to Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

Finally, even though feminists may want a better answer to what Dr. Murphy terms “The Woman Question” in the Church, most Catholic women dismiss the issue for what it is, a quasi-political movement. The Church is greater than any political movement—including the feminist movement—and that is why St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Tim 2:12-14 will continue to guide the Church in accordance with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “At the Well” was painted by Francesco Bergamini (1815-1883).


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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