As someone who studies the family and relationships, I usually look forward to the discussion of these big, important issues in the liturgy. At one church I attended during childhood summers, fathers would be recognized on Father’s Day by standing up and receiving applause. At another church, I remember mothers receiving a special blessing on Mother’s Day. And on the feast of the Holy Family, usually the Sunday after Christmas, the readings always caught my attention.
But over the years, as I attended different parishes during college and beyond, I noticed something odd: Depending on the priest, we’d hear different versions of readings from Colossians and Ephesians about how a man and a woman should love and honor each other.
The full text of this New Testament letter from Paul, includes this advice: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as it behoveth in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and be not bitter towards them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to indignation, lest they be discouraged.”
Since 1998, U.S. Catholic priests have a choice: They can choose not to read these verses, or on alternate years (it’s on an A, B and C system, and the Colossians reading is only assigned to Year A) they can choose an entirely new reading.
This has turned into a point of interest for me: Will the priest read the “Wives, be subject to your husbands” line, or not?
“My usual approach is not to have a difficult text read if I am not going to try to address it somehow in the homily, or put it in its proper context and try to explain why it is not a ‘text of terror,'” said John F. Baldovin, S.J., professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College. “Not to do so with a text like Ephesians 5 is irresponsible in my opinion.”
Indeed, back in 2000, members of the Irish Catholic Church proposed eliminating seven texts—including Ephesians 5:22-24 (more about wives submitting) and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (about how women should be silent, not teach and not have authority over men)—from the Lectionary because they “give an undesirably negative impression regarding women.”
“Sensitivity is crucial to understanding the role of women in society and how different the United States is from first-century Palestine,” said Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgical Practice Thomas A. Kane, CSP, at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston.
Fr. Baldovin agrees, and argues that this is where the Catholic interpretation of the Bible is so important: “There are certainly texts which to our modern ears sound offensive and demeaning. That’s why the Catholic Church has never been fundamentalist in its reading of the Bible.”
There’s an interesting gender tension within the church right now: As women earn more education and excel in the workforce, and as the gender roles of marriage become more fluid, the idea that women should obey and submit to their husbands, or keep silent and not have authority over men, is increasingly out of touch with the way we live our lives.
But it’s still up for debate-and these traditional words are very much a part of the Holy Bible. So what do you think? Does your priest omit those verses from Colossians and Ephesians that call for wives to obey their husbands? Have you heard a great sermon on this topic? Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.