Before we get on to year of the priesthood, I've wanted to wrestle with a few passages in Paul. I stupidly thought that I would get time to really tackle them, but since that hasn't happened, I'll just offer what I have.
They are passages that have to do, of course, with women. What do we do with some of Paul's more difficult texts on women? I'll start with 1 Corinthians 11 and then later move to 1 Timothy 2. They've often presented me with problems, so here's me taking a shot at them.
The first is 1 Corinthians 11:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.2 I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you.3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ.4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head.5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved.6 For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil.7 A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man;9 nor was man created for woman, but woman for man;10 for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.11 Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord.12 For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God.
I think it's important to begin by recognizing that what sounds one way to us would sound very different to a first century audience. For instance, when we hear Paul in Romans 13:1 say something like, "Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God," we immediately think of Paul as some kind of political conservative who would have problems with revolutions. But of course, this is not what Paul is talking about. N.T. Wright reminds us that this statement by Paul would be read by his readers as extremely minimalist, unlike how we read it. After all that Paul had written about Christ as the cosmic ruler, bringing about the Kingdom of the Messiah, Christ as Lord, the subversion of the Cross -- Rome's most useful tool of imperialism -- in other words, after Paul has completely undermined the empire of Caesar in favor of the Lordship of Christ, the least he can do now is to not ruin the whole Christian enterprise by risking mass riots. Paul subtly and not so subtly undermines Caesar, but he wants to do it without destroying Christianity in the process. And so he writes about the role of living peacefully under authority -- at the end of Romans.
What does this have to do with what he says about women? I think it is easy to read Paul's statements about women as anti-feminist, which would be a silly modern reading. Instead, we have to read them in terms of their climate, and also in terms of Paul's own writing method. Let us look at the passage above. Paul begins by asking for imitation. Within the Church, especially in Corinth, there have been problems during Liturgy. This is the whole problem dealt with in this chapter, as too in 1 Timothy 2. And so Paul is asking for imitation in worship. He then goes on to explain the importance of imitation. Imitation is based on hierarchy, and there is a natural hierarchy to the world. Christ reigns at the top of it, says Paul. And that is important to remember, so that order is kept.
So far so good. Everyone is reading along and agreeing. These are "traditions" that they are used to. Paul goes on to say that when a man prays or prophesies, his head should be uncovered. Very good. But then he discusses when a woman "prays or prophesies." Now we are getting to the heart of it. Paul wants women to pray and prophesy. In other words, they can teach. Women are to be able to declare the event of Christ as much as men. After all, Mary Magdalene was the apostle to the Apostles. Men start to get uncomfortable in Corinth here.
So there are regulations given for both men and women. Men should have their head uncovered; women covered. Why? Women must emphasize their natural veil with a covering, precisely in order to draw attention to their womanhood. When women prophesy and pray, it should be clear that they are women. They shouldn't try to look like men; nor men like women. It is their distinction that matters here. Hair is a natural veil, and wearing a veil emphasizes it. And this helps clarify Galatians 3:28. There is no longer male or female in terms of equality, but only in terms of proclamation. Women proclaim as women, and the distinction must be in place. Paul constrains men and women equally in the assembly. Because Paul wants them both praying and prophesying together, and he wants nothing to get in the way. If not wearing the veil gets in the way, then wear the veil as a sign of womanhood. Just don't get in the way of the message, of prophesying, of the point of the whole gathering.
And so Paul relativizes things in light of the gospel message. Now, what appears difficult is that he uses Genesis, it seems, to justify why women should wear a veil. Man is the image of God; woman is the image of man. Man came from God; woman came from man. This, in Paul's reading, is all very clear in the Genesis account. We can forgive him for not having read John Paul II's theology of the body. Or, we can follow the passage a little further. Paul again does what we have seen him do before. Alain Badiou calls it subsequent symmetrization. For Paul's readers, surely the argument can end here. Case closed. We have Genesis as a back up and women should wear a veil as a sign that they are under the authority of men. But instead, Paul explains how things are "in the Lord."
11 Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord.12 For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God.
Neither man nor woman are independent of one another. Men, it would seem, are independent, being the "head" of women. But verse 12 then comes as a shocker. Just as women "came" (past tense) from man, so man "is" (present tense) born of women. And all comes from God. I have to do more study, but what this sounds like is this:
"Just as woman came from man (in Genesis, as I just explained), so now (in the fullness of time, when God sends Jesus born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law) man is born of women. And particularly of the Woman, whose birth of the Son is our birth as well." Is Paul being this dramatic? It at least sounds like it to me.
In other words, the traditions of veil or no veil are rather silly. What matters is that women and men both prophesy, both declare the meaning of the Resurrection. If men have a problem, they can look at Genesis. But if they are going to look at Genesis for justification, they better realize that this can easily be reversed on them, since now men come from women. And so, women can now be seen as having authority over men. Paul desires imitation, and women would now be the source of imitation, since "man is born of woman."
And so, rather than engage in useless arguments and quibbles, which Paul hates so much all through his writings, let's just "pray and prophesy." Get on with preaching the gospel. And do it as men and as women. The distinction is important, but not as a marker of equality. Rather, to end with a quote of Badiou again:
What matters, man or woman, Jew or Greek, slave or free man, is that differences carry the universal that happens to them like a grace. Inversely, only by recognizing in differences their capacity for carrying the universal that comes upon them can the universal itself verify its own reality: "If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played on the flute or the harp" (I Cor. 14:7)? Differences, like instrumental tones, provide us with the recognizable univocity that makes up the melody of the True.
May the Fourth be with you.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ