Irish Bishops Blame Saint Paul for Battered Women

St. Paul has long been vilified by feminists as an unreconstructed male chauvinist responsible for keeping women subservient to men by telling them to be submissive to their husbands, to be silent in church, and to cover their heads when at worship. Now it seems that the bishops of Ireland are at one with the feminists in their assessment of the hapless St. Paul.

In August, two commissions of the Bishops’ Conference of Ireland, the Pastoral Episcopal Commission, and the Commission for Justice and Peace issued a joint document, simply titled Domestic Violence. It cataloged the extent of the problem in Ireland, wondered who or what was to blame, and then recommended ways in which it could be tackled.


Among those it pointed the finger at was the Church herself. It said:

The Church has not been without its share of responsibility in the past and we acknowledge this. Within marriage, the mutual submission of spouses was often overlooked, or equated with unilateral dominance. As the text in Domestic Violence shows, there is no teaching in the Church today to justify domestic violence. Rape is rape, whether within or without the marriage relationship. A wife or husband has the right, and possibly the duty, not to stay in a seriously abusive relationship.

Apparently, what this passage had in mind was those priests of yore who would advise women to return to their abusive husbands and offer it up. Doubtless such priests existed, but one wonders exactly which teachings of the Church were used in the past to justify domestic violence. No examples were offered. No matter. This was a long-overdue exercise in self-flagellation on the part of the Church for all the wrongs she has inflicted on women down the centuries. Therefore, who but a pedant would complain about such details as this?

Certainly not Bishops Willie Walsh and Larry Ryan, who penned the above passage, which appears in the foreword to the document. Attentive readers of CRISIS might recall an article I wrote in the March 1999 issue in which I observed that insofar as there are liberals in the Irish hierarchy, Bishop Walsh is their leading light. No one is quicker to apologize for the sins, real and alleged, committed in the name of the Church, and no one is slower to defend her when some aspect of her teaching or behavior is under attack from politically correct quarters.

This being so, it was no surprise to find that Bishop Walsh was one of the prelates who signed off on this document or, given his record, that he would be happy to lend his name to something that would throw St. Paul over the gunwhales.

St. Paul gets the bullet in the second of the document’s six recommendations. It states:

A small number of texts in the New Testament are liable to give contemporary society an undesirably negative impression concerning women. (Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1-6; Tit 2:4-5; Eph 5:22-24; 1 Cor 11:3-16; 1 Cor 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15). These texts would be better omitted from the new Lectionary, currently in preparation. The first four are in the present Lectionary. If they are quoted, in any context, they should be suitably commented on in the light of contemporary Church teaching.

Happily, there is about as much chance of Rome listening to this recommendation as there is of a Mass being said at Bob Jones University. In fact, it is much more likely that the Vatican will merely rotate some of the above readings—say by replacing the first four with the last three—than there is of it ditching the whole lot of them.

Censoring the Sacred

What is depressing is that the recommendation should have been made at all. It indicates that we have now arrived at a point where a section of the Church is happy to censor her own most sacred text. Of course, defenders of the measure say that nothing of the sort is happening. Fr. Paddy Jones, one of the Irish Church’s leading liturgists, correctly points out that dropping readings from the Mass does not prevent Catholics from finding them in the Bible. He also says that in choosing which readings should be included in the lectionary, the Church is by definition engaging in a process of selection. She picks and chooses from the Bible which passages should be read at Mass and which should not. This being so, why not drop passages that are so open to misunderstanding? I can think of several reasons.

First, while it is true that only selected readings go into the lectionary, those who prepare it are careful to ensure that all major biblical themes are drawn to the attention of Mass-goers. What St. Paul has to say about men, women, and their relationship with one another is certainly such a theme and, therefore, should not be treated as though it does not exist.

Second, while it is true that if these passages were dropped from the readings, Catholics could still find them in the Bible, this ignores the undeniable fact that most Catholics only encounter the Bible at Mass. To drop these passages from the lectionary will take them from the view of Catholics. Therefore, it is, in effect, an act of censorship.

Third, once you start excising passages from the readings at Mass that are liable to give offense or lead to misunderstanding, where do you stop? Probably 80 percent of the Old Testament and maybe 20 percent of the New Testament will have to go as well.

Appearance of Unity

At this stage, perhaps a word should be said in defense of the Irish bishops as a whole. This document was never approved by the bishops collectively. It was approved only by those bishops who oversee the two commissions that drew it up.

Unfortunately, that’s about as much as can be said in their defense, because after it was made public, no bishop spoke out in defense of St. Paul. This highlights one of the major, inherent flaws in the concept of bishops’ conferences: So keen are the bishops to preserve the appearance of unity among themselves that only on the rarest occasions will they contradict one another in public.

Furthermore, this episode shows how Church bureaucracy works. The bishops’ conference has numerous commissions working for it, producing reports on every issue under the sun. In practice, these commissions are semiautonomous and run by laypeople who are often liberal/left in outlook. They work to their own agendas, which sometimes pay mere lip service to the teachings of the Church by quoting from various Church documents.

Typically, they are overseen by bishops who are either on the same wavelength as the commission members or who are “reasonable,” not wanting to cause a fuss and, therefore, content to act as rubber stamps for the documents their commissions produce.

The upshot is that the commissions can produce material that may have little relation to the teachings of the Church but can be passed off as if they do. This is certainly how the media receive and report them. It is how they reported Domestic Violence even though, to be fair, the document itself acknowledged that the views contained therein were not necessarily those of the bishops as a whole.


Defending St. Paul

Perhaps this episode also highlights a lack of proper education in many priests. Certainly, I have never heard the allegedly sexist readings from St. Paul properly explained, although I have heard them explained away. One priest rather cynically, but perhaps realistically, said to me that he thought they should be dropped from the readings—not because he agreed with the liberals, but because he knew most priests couldn’t even begin to explain them.

Which raises the question, how might they be explained? How would you go about mounting a defense of St. Paul?

You could begin by painting a picture of the state of women in the Jewish and Roman worlds at the time St. Paul was preaching. For example, if traditional depictions of Mary were accurate, they would show her not merely wearing a veil over her head but across her face as well. Women were segregated from men at worship. They could not enter the temple in Jerusalem. (Instead, they had a special place set aside for them.) They were not taught Scripture and could not teach it. Imagine women in Afghanistan today, and you’ve got the general idea.

In the Roman world, the paterfamilias had power of life and death over all members of his household, including his wife and children. Not much sign of equality there.

St. Paul gave men authority in the house and the Church. But he told men to love their wives as they loved their own body. He told them to treat them as Christ would. He told them to love their children and not provoke them. Women could be taught Scripture. They did not have to wear a double veil. They were not segregated in worship. It could almost be said that, by the standards of his day, St. Paul was a feminist.

One would have thought it was not beyond the wit of priests to explain some of this. Could Domestic Violence not have done so? Was this not a perfect opportunity for one of the bishops to do it? The Irish Catholic made some stab at it; so did I in my Sunday Times column.

Scoring PC Points

One other prominent commentator, John Waters of the Irish Times, did attack the document. What made this attack surprising was its source, namely the Irish Times, Ireland’s answer to the New York Times. What’s more, Waters’s criticism went to the very heart of the document itself. He didn’t attack it for recommending that St. Paul be censored; rather he attacked it for taking at face value all the claims the feminists make about domestic violence. He said it ignored the fact that there is mounting evidence that men are often victims of female violence. He wrote: “The Catholic Church’s moral credentials have rested on its willingness to treat all comers as equals before God. This changed last week when the Church issued a document based on the propaganda of those representing one side of an argument, and proposed editing Scripture to fall in with this analysis.”

Attacking the assertion that domestic violence is overwhelmingly male on female, he said, “Every independent study in the western world surveying men and women has found that domestic violence is a roughly 50-50 phenomenon, and that the issue is not gender but the dynamics of human relationships. This may be ‘counter-intuitive,’ but it is true.”

He went on: “The overwhelming reason why men do not report such abuse is because of the pervasiveness of propaganda such as is contained in the bishops’ document. Rampaging males spouting Corinthians following the chastisement of their wives do not exist beyond the pages of some lost novel by Flannery O’Connor.”

Finally, he delivered the coup de grace: “The bishops seek merely to score a few PC points and divert attention from the genuine misogyny still to be found in many Church attitudes and ideologies. Now, with this studied outburst of misandry, we may conclude that they are seeking to be equally offensive to both sexes.”

Following the appearance of this article, an organization called Amen, which is led by a woman but dedicated to highlighting female violence against men, decided to get in on the action. It reported that it was receiving CC numerous” calls from men outraged by the bishops. Amen sent an angry, critical letter to Bishop Walsh and others behind Domestic Violence.

How did Bishop Walsh respond? As he always does; he apologized. In a letter to Amen, he said he accepts “most of the criticisms” it made and that “I very much regret the obviously very deep hurt caused to you and the many others you mention.”


In the Name of Vatican II?

There was yet more criticism to come, this time from another source that must have also surprised and upset the ecumenically minded Bishop Walsh, who is in the habit of apologizing to Anglicans for the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize their holy orders.

In Northern Ireland, during a religious affairs program, a member of the Presbyterian Church said he thought it was typical of the Catholic Church to edit and censor the Bible in this way. “Isn’t this what the Catholic Church has been doing for centuries?,” he asked.

The irony is that the editing this time is being done by people who fancy themselves to be creatures of the Second Vatican Council, even though the Second Vatican Council encouraged reading of the Bible, perceived warts and all, by laypeople. Maybe this just proves again that those who make the loudest noises about the mysterious “spirit” of Vatican II are in reality wedded to the spirit of the age.


  • David Quinn

    David Quinn is an Irish commentator on religious and social affairs. For over six years, he was editor of The Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper. He has written weekly opinion columns for newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Daily Mail. Quinn has contributed to publications such as First Things, The Human Life Review and The Wall Street Journal (Europe edition). Currently, he freelances and contributes weekly columns to the Irish Independent and The Irish Catholic. He appears regularly on Irish radio and television current affairs programs.

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