Equality of men and women in marriage


From a 1986 Pastoral Letter of the Irish Bishops Love is for Life


People nowadays have higher expectations from life and especially from marriage. They expect more from marriage than formerly, both in terms of personal and emotional and sexual satisfaction and in terms of material well-being. High expectations can often cause deep disappointment and frustration. New styles of relationship between the sexes have developed. Women have much more social freedom and more job openings and career opportunities than formerly. The equality of women and men is recognised to a greater extent. Many married women are nowadays more economically independent of their husbands than formerly, whether through personal earnings or through social security. All this calls, however, for adjustment in the traditional roles of husband and wife. When this adjustment does not take place, tension and conflict can result.

152. The feminist movement is having an important impact on the context in which contemporary marriage has to be lived. This is one of the most significant movements in our time. In the phrase used by the Vatican Council, it must be seen as one of the "signs of the times" which the Church must read in our age. Indeed, the equality of the sexes is basic Christian teaching. Feminism can be said to have received its first charter from St Paul when he said: There are no more distinctions between . . . male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:278).

St Paul rejected the double standard in marriage by the words:

The wife has no right over her own body; it is the husband who has them. In the same way, the husband has no right over his body; the wife has them. (1 Corinthians 7:5).

One of the important challenges facing the Church today is to develop a truly Christian contemporary feminism; and in the Church this task must fall primarily on women themselves, filled with love of Christ and anxious to play their full part in the life of the Church. They will find inspiration from the figure of Mary, Mother of the Lord, blessed among women. As Pope Paul VI said, in Marialis Cultus in 1974:

The picture of the Blessed Virgin presented in a certain type of devotional literature cannot easily be reconciled with today's life style, especially with the way women live today. In the home, woman's equality and co-responsibility with man in the running of the family are being justly recognized by laws and the evolution of customs. In the sphere of politics women have in many countries gained a position in public life equal to that of men. In the social field women are at work in a whole range of different employments, getting further away every day from the restricted surroundings of the home. In the cultural field new possibilities are opening up for women in scientific research and intellectual activities. (no. 34)

The figure of Mary, however, has lost none of its relevance in today's world. As Pope John Paul went on to say:

The modern woman will note with pleasant surprise that Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others; on the contrary, she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (cf Lk 1:51-53). The modern woman will recognize in Mary, who "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord", a woman of strength, who experienced poverty and suffering, flight and exile. (cf. Mt 2:13-23)

153. A Christian feminism will share many of the values and the struggles of the world-wide feminist movement. But it will judge them by the standards of the Gospel and reject what is contrary to the Gospel. The feminist movement in general is a challenge for the Church, and also an opportunity. It has important implications for women's experience in marriage. Happy and successful marriages will in future have to take increasing cognisance of the new feminine consciousness which has developed, and will have to adjust to its rights and needs. Husbands must be prepared to take their full share of household duties and of the care of children. Above all, the couple will have to relate to each other as equal partners, sharing a satisfying relationship with one another. The aspect of satisfactory interpersonal relationship in marriage becomes increasingly important; and each partner must take responsibility for building this relationship. It must be remembered, however, that there can be no authentic or enduring love without constant effort and readiness for sacrifice by both partners.


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