Sunday, 5 June 2011

Traditional Catholic theology on gender roles

In this post, I want to look at a couple of sources for traditional Catholic teaching on gender roles - one a papal encyclical from the late 19th century and the other a theological text from the early 20th century.

As usual, I will start by summing up their contents:

- The husband is the head of the family, the "strong element", who provides his wife with financial support and protection.

- The wife is the "gentle element", who bears children and renders obedience to her husband, though this obedience is not servile or unlimited in nature.  The wife has the domestic sphere as her area of authority.

- The husband and wife should love and help each other.

- The children are subject to both parents, not just the father.


Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum (1880)

[T]he mutual duties of husband and wife have been defined, and their several rights accurately established. They are bound, namely, to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help. The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honour nor dignity....

As regards children, they ought to submit to the parents and obey them, and give them honor for conscience' sake; while, on the other hand, parents are bound to give all care and watchful thought to the education of their offspring and their virtuous bringing up....


T.J.Gerrard, Marriage and parenthood, the Catholic ideal (1911)

The fact indeed is that in many quarters the Catholic ideal of the great Sacrament of matrimony has become obscured. The protective love of the husband toward the wife has been changed into a tyrannical overlordship. The loving acquiescence in that protection on the part of the wife has been construed into a servile obedience....

Now all this involves much trouble and anxiety both on the part of the husband and of the wife. With the former lies the paramount obligation of working for the sustenance of the household; with the latter lie all the cares of child-bearing; with both lies that anxiety for the temporal and spiritual well-being of each other and of the children.... When a man complains of his loss of liberty or the increased burden on his pocket; or when a woman complains of the troubles of children, there has evidently been some radical misunderstanding as to the end of the institution of marriage and of its burdens....

[I]t is, ordinarily speaking, the lot of the man to be the breadwinner of the family. He it is who must use his brains in the learned professions, in commerce, in the arts, and in the crafts....

No one will deny that in some sense the husband is the head of the family. Man was made first, and made lord of the earth. In his overlordship he was lonely and had need of a helpmeet for him. To this end was a woman taken from his flesh and bone and given to him to be his wife.... He was to be the strong element, she the gentle. He was to be her protector; she was to find her joy in the sense of the security of his protection....

[T]here is a distinction between servile obedience and conjugal obedience. The obedience of wives is as much raised above that of sons as that of sons is above that of slaves.... Broadly speaking we may say that the obedience of the wife is due to the husband only within certain limits. It is not absolute. It is due to him in all those matters where it is evident that he must rule. It is not due to him in those matters where it is evident that the wife must rule.

All matters of business, everything which seriously affects the income of the family, the choice of trades or professions for the children — these evidently belong to the judgment of the husband. The wife may be, and ought to be, frequently consulted. But having expressed her opinion she ought to abide by the decision of the head of the family. On the other hand the interior domestic arrangements pertain to the judgment of the wife. The management of servants and babies, for instance, are points upon which the husband should have nothing to say, except perhaps when he is asked, or when he divines that his suggestion will meet with his wife's approval....

The father is to be supreme ruler, the mother is to rule in her sphere under him, the children are to be subject to both. Moreover, the subjection of the children is not to be a slavish subjection, but a filial subjection. It must be informed by love rather than by fear. There must, of course, be a certain fear present in the children, but a reverential fear, a fear by which one is afraid of offending love, rather than a fear by which one is afraid of punishment....