John Richardson on sex, scripture and the Roman response

Perhaps the most contentious issues in the worldwide church for the last several decades have concerned gender and sexuality. Homosexuality and women priests have been the hottest topics in recent years, but we may add divorce and remarriage, the structures of the family and society, inclusive language and the nature of God, and, behind many of these issues, the overall impact of feminism.

Theological forays by Anglican and other Protestant bodies into these areas have often been regrettable, not least because the official commissions are usually packed with those who have already rejected the church’s traditional teaching. However, it is impossible for even the most solidly traditionalist of institutions to maintain a dignified silence and so we have also had a number of contributions from the Church of Rome, the latest being the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World issued by Cardinal Ratzinger.


To the evangelical Anglican who takes time to read such documents, they are a strange admixture of the unfamiliar and the positively welcome. Indeed, having previously explored some of the same material in my own God, Sex and Marriage and What God has Made Clean, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Cardinal agreeing with me almost as much as I agreed with the Cardinal.

One reason is undoubtedly that the Church of Rome is able to appreciate the findings of biblical scholarship and modern science without being paralyzed by them. Thus the Letter refers to two ‘creation accounts’ in Genesis, but resists the temptation to set one against the other. Similarly, the authorship of Ephesians is left open, but the text is not thereby evacuated of authority.

Most importantly, in contrast with the contemporary Church of England, the biblical text is genuinely treated as the foundation for what is subsequently asserted; thus, ‘In it the revealed truth concerning the human person as “the image and likeness” of God constitutes the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology’ (paragraph 5). It is, frankly, rather refreshing.


Anglican readers need to be aware that Ratzinger’s letter draws on the much longer Mulieris Dignitatem, produced by Pope John Paul II himself. This addressed the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year, whereas the Letter to the Bishops considers how similar thinking impinges on ‘a correct understanding of active collaboration, in recognition of the difference between men and women in the Church and in the world’ (1b). Thus in Rome as in Anglicanism, there is a tendency for later documents to build on the earlier.

There is also the matter of Tradition, which means specifically that the Virgin Mary is given a particular prominence in the ‘gender debate’. For Anglican evangelicals, however, this creates a weakness in the analysis since it introduces a second ‘pole’, not itself controlled by scripture, around which the debate must nevertheless revolve. Thus, when the letter turns to ‘The Importance of Feminine Values in the Life of the Church’, where ‘the figure of Mary constitutes the fundamental reference in the Church’ (15b), it is argued:

To look at Mary and imitate her does not mean, however, that the Church should adopt a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity (16a).

Yet here one feels that theology becomes hostage to cultural fashion – the very thing the Letter sets out to challenge. For if Mary must not be viewed in an ‘outdated’ way, then modernity becomes the measure of validity.


To raise this question is, however, to respond in the spirit of the Letter, which itself declares,

These reflections are meant as a starting point for further examination in the Church, as well as an impetus for dialogue with all men and women of good will, in a sincere search for the truth and in a common commitment to the development of ever more authentic relationships (1b, emphasis added).

The need for such dialogue arises from two perceived tendencies in recent approaches to ‘gender issues’. The first is ‘to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism,’ whereby, ‘women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men’ (2a).

The second is to view the differences between men and women ‘as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning’ (2b). This is presented in the Letter as the more insidious trend, calling into question ‘the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father’ and making ‘homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality’ (2b). Its roots are seen as lying ultimately in ‘the human attempt to be freed from one’s biological conditioning’ (3a), substituting for this the conviction that ‘all persons can and ought to constitute themselves as they like, since they are free from every predetermination linked to their essential constitution’ (3a). The consequences of this are, moreover, to strengthen ‘the idea that the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture’ (3b) and to consider ‘as lacking in importance and relevance the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form’ (3b).

Over against these tendencies, the Letter affirms that ‘the Church, enlightened by faith in Jesus Christ, speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman’ (4).


At this point, therefore, Ratzinger’s Letter gives substantial space to considering the Genesis creation accounts. And here, the Evangelical will find much to cheer and nothing to fear – in short, no smuggling-in of strange doctrines! In Genesis 1 (vv 26–27) ‘humanity is described as articulated in the male-female relationship’, and it is this ‘sexually differentiated’ humanity which is ‘explicitly declared “the image of God”’ (5b). The second creation account then ‘confirms in a definitive way the importance of sexual difference’ (6a). Thus we are presented with a shared common humanity and yet also an ‘ontological’ (6a) difference between the sexes, particularly insofar as ‘woman, in her deepest and original being, exists ‘for the other’ (cf 1 Corinthians 11.9)’ (6d).

And that (be it noted) is that, as regards handling the text of Scripture. Specifically, there is no qualification of the text as ‘handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture’, as one might expect in a similar Anglican treatment. On the contrary, such a view of the text as culturally conditioned (rather than culturally located) is explicitly rejected (3b).


It is perfectly possible, then, for conservative Anglicans to engage in the invited dialogue at this level, and I would therefore offer two comments. One is to question the assertion that before the creation of Eve, Adam ‘experienced a loneliness’ (6a). This is a pardonable deduction from the usual English translations of 2:18, that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’ (NIV), but the Hebrew term can simply mean ‘one in its class’ and need not (indeed usually does not) imply feelings of isolation. Similarly, the description of this situation as ‘not good’ need not imply ‘bad’, but may rather mean ‘not yet complete’.

To stress Adam’s condition as ‘loneliness’ identifies the woman as the solution to his angst, whereas the text says rather that the man lacks a ‘helper’ – in Hebrew an ezer. And although the Letter acknowledges (in a footnote) that ‘God too is at times called ezer with regard to human beings’, it does less than full justice to the biblical text when it says simply that this ‘indicates the assistance which only a person can render to another’. In fact, of the fifteen contexts in which ezer is used in the Old Testament, eleven refer to the help provided by God. And, as in the case of the cognate azar to which the Letter also refers, the majority of references are to help given in warfare or to the utterly helpless.

What the man seems to lack, then, is not a companion but a ‘strengthener’, which explains why the animals – which are a primary source of ‘strengthening’ in pre-industrial societies – are brought to him first. By failing to pick this up, however, the Letter gives less emphasis than it might to the significance of the marital nature of the male–female relationship in Genesis 2. For not all women help all men in this way. Specifically, it is a wife, not merely a woman, who provides the ‘strengthening’ Adam lacks. And although the Letter recognizes the marital nature of the relationship between Adam and Eve, it generalizes too easily to the wider world of relationships which it wishes to address.


The Letter may also have missed out somewhat in its handling of Genesis 3.16: ‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’ (quoted in 7b). Certainly this implies the debasing of marital relationships, but there is a word-for-word parallel between this verse and 4.7 which is surely significant. Regarding sin, God warns Cain,

And to you [is] his desire, and you will master him.

Whereas he says previously to Eve,

And to your husband [is] your desire, and he will master you.

Due to Cain’s capitulation to sin, 4.7 is often translated as an optimistic imperative: ‘you must master it’ (NIV, NRSV); which distances the text significantly from the pessimistically predictive way that 3.16 is usually read: ‘he will master you’. But the mirrored language of the texts surely suggests a mirrored meaning: as sin is towards Cain, so Eve is towards Adam. Eve’s desire, then, is not for sexual congress with her husband (although this is a permissible translation, cf Song 7.10), but rather to dominate. As she has misled him once, so she is now ‘cursed’ to repeat the same pattern in attempting to take the lead in the future (cf 1 Timothy 2.12–14). He, by contrast, is meant to resist this – but who is to say he will have any more success than Cain (compare Genesis 16.2b, ‘and Abram listened to the voice of Sarai’, with 3.18a, ‘you have listened to the voice of your wife’)?

Here, we may tentatively suggest, is a theological insight into the ‘battle of the sexes’. And if we are correct, then this conflict will be no more easily eradicated than is pain in childbearing!


One reason for stressing these points is that although the Letter is subsequently very strong in developing further the ‘spousal’ theme of God’s relationship with Israel and Christ’s relationship with the church, it is somewhat weaker when it considers the relationships between men and women in society. Within the framework of ‘Christ’s Paschal mystery’ it urges that men and women ‘no longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference’ (12), but the basic difference presented is women’s ‘capacity for the other’ whereby ‘women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other’ (13a).

This capacity, it is claimed, ‘is linked to women’s physical capacity to give life’ (13b). But to conclude that ‘Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way’ (13b), and then to use this as the major basis for a subsequent discussion of women’s role society leaves too much depending on an assertion which is open to a psycho-social, rather than a theological, critique.

Similarly, the material on ‘The Importance of Feminine Values in the Life of the Church’, with its dependency on Mary as a role model, relies on a necessarily limited amount of biblical material and, as previously indicated, invites counter-criticism from those who say that Mary has been ‘misread’ within precisely the ‘historically conditioned model of femininity’ (16b) which the Letter claims to avoid.


There is, nevertheless, much that is helpful even to Anglicans – indeed, even to evangelical Anglicans – within this and the related documents from the Church of Rome. And this is not to damn with faint praise. On the contrary, one is left fervently wishing that the same willingness to sit under the authority of Scripture were currently found within the Church of England. At the same time, one wishes Rome might submit some of its less obviously scriptural tenets to a similarly rigorous critique. On the day that happens, who knows what might become possible for those who have previously said, ‘No Pope here!’

John P Richardson works near Stansted Airport and is still an Evangelical Anglican