GUEST COMMENTARY: The Church’s Feminine Mistake

Print More

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Last February, Pope Benedict XVI spoke feelingly about early Christian women leaders: “The history of Christianity would have developed quite differently without the generous contribution of many women,” he said.

The pope even acknowledged that, unlike the apostles, women “did not abandon Jesus at the hour of his passion. … Outstanding among them was Mary Magdalene, who was the first witness of the Resurrection and announced it to the others.”

Yet how many of us knew much about Mary Magdalene until “The Da Vinci Code?” Even then, Dan Brown got it only partly right, to the great consternation of church leaders who unfortunately have only themselves to blame.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene’s story, like those of many other biblical women, has been minimized in the official lectionary (the calendar of Scriptures read at Mass) used in both Catholic and Protestant churches. A fascinating 1996 analysis by Sister Ruth Fox found a disproportionate number of passages about women were completely deleted.

For example, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden and his command to “go and tell my brothers” is never read on any Sunday in the Easter season, or any Sunday at all in U.S. churches. Instead, the lectionary account from the Gospel of John inexplicably stops just before this beautiful commissioning.

Even though the Gospel of Matthew’s Palm Sunday passage begins with an unnamed woman disciple anointing Jesus, the lectionary deletes any mention of her. Unlike the male disciple who criticized her, this woman affirmed Jesus’ prophetic and kingly role. Yet her story is never told, though Jesus himself promised: “… wherever the good news is proclaimed … what she did will be told in memory of her.”

Then there’s Romans 16, where verses about Phoebe _ the woman deacon who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans _ are completely excised. We never hear Paul’s praise of this important woman leader: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe who is a deacon of Church at Cenchreae. Please welcome her … she has been of help to many, including myself.”

Stories of women from the Hebrew scriptures are also omitted, perhaps most notably that of Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives. A reading from Exodus skips the story of their brave, nonviolent resistance to a command from Pharoah to kill all male Hebrews at birth. Had the midwives obeyed, Moses and many other Hebrew men would never have seen adulthood. Yet our sons and daughters never hear about the women who saved a nation because they obeyed God rather than an unjust ruler.

Late last year, Benedict announced that the World Synod of Bishops in 2008 will address “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” Synod planners urge special attention to “the word of God in liturgy, in preaching, in catechesis, in theology, spirituality, public and private meditation, enculturation and ecumenism.”

If Pope Benedict means what he says about valuing women’s historical and biblical leadership, will he restore biblical women leaders to lectionary readings in which their witness is diminished or deleted?

An important first step would also be an invitation to women biblical scholars to serve the synod as expert consultants.

In his February teaching, Benedict openly countered centuries of literal biblical interpretation by pointing to Paul’s writings, where it is accepted as normal for early Christian women to edify the assembly with prophetic utterances. The Pope concluded: “St. Paul’s subsequent assertion that `women should be silent in the churches’ must be relativized. … ” When will the pope and our bishops begin to act on the logical conclusion of his scholarship, and encourage women to serve as preachers and proclaimers in our Catholic churches?

Perhaps then Catholic Christianity can begin healing from centuries of silencing and suppressing women leaders whose main fault _ oddly enough _ seems to be their female witness to Christ.

(Sister Christine Schenk is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and executive director of FutureChurch, a church reform group based in Lakewood, Ohio.)


A photo of Sister Christine Schenk is available via

Comments are closed.