I have long been interested in why the officers of the catholic church have been so reluctant to consider involving women in the governance of their institution and in its sacramental ministry. So I decided to write a book about it.
In prosecuting their case and to “explain” their antiquated unwillingness to even entertain the possibility, the popes and bishops have fallen back on a few old chestnuts. The church’s theological hero, Thomas Aquinas, for example, used to teach his students that women could not possibly be ordained priests because they lack the pre-eminence which the office demanded. Female ordination was contrary to nature. Women obviously did not exhibit the necessary level of dignity, of gravitas which men were able to muster. Perhaps, in the light of the Royal Commission’s findings, this consideration does not carry the same degree of persuasion today, but those in charge don’t want to abandon it – at least not yet.
Another old argument which is still trotted out is that Adam was created first, before Eve, that the woman was created from Adam’s side, and she was the one tempted by the serpent and who led Adam into sin. Not a bad little argument. Adam was superior because he had been first on the scene. Eve had proved to be the evil one of the pair and a danger to her husband. So naturally, as descendants of Adam, men are superior to women and they have been infected with the same evil virus as their predecessor, Eve. Consequently, over the centuries they have been associated with death, the devil, sin, witches and sex. Though until as recently as the middle of the twentieth century Catholics were required to believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons, in fact they are (and have always been) purely mythological figures. Figments of a storyteller’s imagination. Like the characters in Alice in Wonderland, the Three Bears, or Tinkerbell and Peter Pan. The men in charge need to surrender their reliance on this bogus argument.
The most popular contemporary argument simply states that Jesus chose and commissioned men. His policy was men only. He commissioned twelve male apostles to be in charge, and that’s the end of the discussion. QED. Jesus closed the door on women and we should not be talking about a female share in governance or their participation in the upper echelons of ministry. But were there in fact twelve men commissioned by Jesus? Or less? Or more? And did he commission only men to carry on his work? And if he did, so what? Is that authority structure written in stone, forever?
The world, at least the western version of the world, is vastly different now than it was in Jesus’ day. In lieu of the Chief Priest and a seventy all male Sanhedrin we have a female chief judge of the High Court accompanied by two sister judges. We had a female Governor General and a recent female Prime Minister. Surgeons, barristers, professors, brigadiers, engineers, jockeys, footballers and truck-drivers. The world which Jesus’ followers inhabit has changed.
In an attempt to understand the ecclesiastical world of male officers, I decided to spend my time in retirement having a long hard look at the attitudes of church leaders towards women and their treatment of them, especially during the formative years of the organization. I started off with Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure and with the legal prescriptions finally canonized in the medieval Decretum Gratiani. I studied the vast canon of Adam and Eve literature and the many bizarre versions of the basic Genesis story as well as the substantial commentary on the details of the story which Augustine of Hippo had written – the scurrilous misogynist poetry written by monks for the amusement of their celibate brothers – the opinions of Aristotle and his friend Theophratus as to the essential difference between men and women, and their relative status and value. I was surprised to learn that Aristotle had concluded that women were “misbegotten males” who had been conceived during a cold spell, or who had not been properly cooked in the womb. I explored the surprising misogyny of the great scripture scholar and translator of the Bible, Jerome, and traced his poisonous influence throughout the Middle Ages. In The wife of Bath’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer had quoted him often and referred to Jerome’s affirming repetition of the misogynist writings of Theophratus. I read the works of Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the many Gnostic-Christian gospels and other recently discovered literature, and eventually I came to the letters of Paul of Tarsus where I ended my study.
I found a surprisingly virulent tradition of explicit misogyny which had begun with the author of the Pastoral Epistles, if not with Paul himself, and which ran right through the Middle Ages. I could identify not one voice which had taken up the cause of women and no female who had written favourably about them during the first millennium of the present era. An unrelenting stream of toxic misogyny flowed through the writings of bishops, monks, poets and theologians.
Eventually I traced my way back to the beginning, back to Jesus and the Gospels. In my old age I decided to take another look at the gold standard for Christians, at Jesus as he was portrayed by the authors of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
Surprise, surprise. I discovered a completely different world. Jesus had been a man who obviously loved women, who had responded to them warmly, who engaged with them out in public, women of all types, some of whom he shouldn’t have been seen with. He involved these women in his life and mission. He was comfortable in their presence, eating and drinking with them, talking to them, journeying with them.
Jesus had been prepared to open his shoulders in his criticism of the religious leaders of the day – and he hadn’t held back correcting his male companions telling them how dense they were, but when it came to women, not a word of hostility or criticism passed his lips. He invited them into his group of disciples, befriended them, discussed important aspects of his life and mission with them and ignored the many taboos the Jewish laws imposed on him and other men in their dealings with the opposite sex.
His behaviour as described in the Gospels was in complete contrast to what was expected of any Jewish man, especially of a preacher or teacher. Jesus had been a radical, counter-cultural figure preaching a message of inclusion, of equality, of forgiveness, love and non-discrimination. His life had been a moment of grace which, if grabbed with both hands, could have produced an entirely different cultural world – a moment of human history which was let slip, never to return. Jesus’ behaviour and his attitudes had been in complete contrast with what I had been reading about women from the pen of Tertullian or in the letters of Jerome, from popes and prelates, poets and theologians. Before I wrote my book on the misogynist stream poisoning the traditions and practices flowing from the source, I had to prepare the ground with a book about the gold standard governing all Christian attitudes and behaviour.
Jesus – The Forgotten Feminist tells the story of this Jesus and his deeply personal relationship with his female friends and women in the marketplace. I have written it in an attempt to help reset the debate about the place and status of women in the communities of Jesus followers.
Chris Geraghty, theologian, former priest and former judge of the District Court of NSW, now living in gentle retirement.
‘Jesus the forgotten feminist’ can be purchased online at : https://garrattpublishing.com.