© Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture
Vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 10-21.

Catholic Church Teaching and Domestic Violence

Marie J. Giblin

Marie J. Giblin is an assistant professor of Christian ethics and theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Dr. Giblin has been working on health care issues in diverse locations and situations -- from Tanzania to inner city Cincinnati, from hospice to the organizational ethics of Catholic health systems. Her scholarly interests are in global and gender justice. She has published articles on health care ethics and liberation theology.
The Catholic Church is relatively silent in its official teachings on the issue of domestic violence. In Vatican texts reviewed for this essay (texts appearing in the U.S. bishops' documentation service Origins since 1981), no mention of domestic violence or violence against women within the home is mentioned. Violence against women is mentioned in six Vatican documents reviewed, but never in connection to family settings. In contrast, the U.S. bishops have made some attempts to raise the issue for discussion among American Catholics. On other occasions, however, they too are silent.(1)

Religion plays a formative role in expectations of marriage. Christian religious tradition has contributed to sexual inequality over the centuries, even though it has contained seeds of liberation as well.(2) Male religious leaders, especially the Catholic hierarchy, overlook this negative history and emphasize church teaching of the ideal marriage, failing to acknowledge the underside of the teaching and its presumptions about sex roles, especially about dominance and submission.

One Catholic scholar notes that studies show "members of most U.S. religious denominations, unless they are mental health practitioners actively engaged in work with family violence, see no connection between the belief system of their church and family violence."(3) Church statements treat violence against women as a problem of secular society and make no attempt to reflect on the church's role in the formation of gender stereotypes. Church leaders on the national and Roman levels do not discuss the institutionalized ways in which church teaching may perpetuate sexism and contribute (even if unintentionally) to the ideological justification of violence against women.(4) The reluctance to consider possible connections between church teaching and violence against women is the sharpest edge of the larger issue-the hierarchy's refusal to consider the role of patriarchy in Christianity. Examining this sharpest edge shows most clearly why patriarchal thought and practice in the church must be addressed.

This brief essay will give an overview of church documents relevant to the issue of domestic violence. I will then highlight the use of one biblical text as an example of church leadership's insistence that a particular teaching advances equality for women, despite women's experience and scholarly research that argue that the text is based on sexist assumptions which must be acknowledged and transformed.


In November 1992, a document on domestic violence was published by the administrative board of the U.S. bishops that was designed to reach out to abused wives and to educate pastoral staffs within the Catholic community: "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women."(5) The short statement of five pages claims only to be an introduction and to offer some practical pastoral suggestions for parishes. The document begins with a clear statement that violence against women is never justified, inside the home or outside it. The document defines abuse as "any kind of behavior that one person uses to control another through fear and intimidation" (2). Although the definition sounds gender-neutral, the document is not. The authors acknowledge that abuse against women occurs in families "in every ethnic, economic, religious, and educational background"(2). Among the reasons the authors give for the violence are the climate of our society, which is saturated with violence, and the views of abusers that women are inferior and are meant to be dominated and controlled by men. Within the body of the text, there is no link made to how the church might contribute to those destructive views.

The document turns to scriptural teaching for a church response to domestic violence. The bishops hold tip the Genesis account of women and men as created in God's image (Genesis 1:27) and the example of Jesus' consistent respect for the human dignity of women. They also point to Jesus' outreach to those on the fringe of society -- those without power, voice, or authority -- as a manifestation of his teaching that each woman and man is worthy of respect and dignity.

The bishops express concern in the document about the use of biblical texts to support abusive behavior. Their response is sharp, but insufficiently critical: "As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to condone abusive behavior. A correct reading of the Scriptures leads people to a relationship based on mutuality and love" (3). The bishops express confidence in a text (Ephesians 5: 21-33) that has had great importance in the issue of male/female domestic relations:

Even where the Bible uses traditional language to support the social order common in the day, the image presented is never one that condones the use of abuse to control another person. In Ephesians 5:21-33, for instance, which discusses relationships within the family, the general principle laid down is one of mutual submission between husband and wife. The passage holds out the image to husbands that they are to love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church. Can you imagine Jesus battering his Church? (3)
This Ephesians text has often been used in church teaching on marriage. In "When I Call for Help," the bishops claim that Ephesians 5:21, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," is the ruling principle of the passage and that the use of Christ/ Church imagery for husband/wife eliminates the possibility of using the text to condone abuse. Why scholars dispute this claim will be shown later in the paper. For now, it is sufficient to note the bishops' use of the Ephesians text and their failure to examine the linkage of this text to women's lives. For too many partners of battered women, the next verse, "wives be subject to your husband" (Ephesians 5:22), has legitimized the use of coercion by males.

"When I Call for Help" closes with a list of what pastoral personnel can do. Suggestions include using homilies to address domestic violence, instructing counselors to use direct questions when abuse is suspected, care regarding language so as not to blame the victim or bolster the belief that it is her fault, and the need to have an action plan in place to deal with an abused woman who needs help. Pastoral workers are encouraged to build relationships with domestic violence agencies, shelters, and police. The only explicit mention of sexism, however, comes in the recommendations for educators and catechists: "Insist that teaching and texts be free of sexual stereotyping. Battering thrives on sexism" (4).

This 1992 document was a helpful pastoral tool that elicited constructive resl2onses in a number of local churches around the country, including the writing and circulating of educational materials. Such efforts show local church interest in being a positive contributor in addressing the problem of domestic violence, but they also show the limitations of the vision of the task. In materials from the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the question is asked: "Are We Part of the Problem?" This excellent question is answered in terms that are too narrow, although true: that parish team members can be part of the problem when they trivialize or minimize the abuse, when they blame the victim or ignore her need for safety, or when they violate confidentiality. Such sensitivity, although important, is not enough. The Catholic Church, especially its magisterium, has to ask the question "Are we part of the problem?" and answer it more deeply. The issue is not only how pastoral staff should respond to battered women. The question is: how do church teaching and practice contribute to a climate in which battering remains such a live option? As will be shown below, Vatican texts demonstrate the same reluctance to examine possible connections of church teaching and praxis to violence against women.


In Vatican texts that have appeared in Origins since 1981, only a few recent documents address the issue of violence against women. Bishop Jorge Mejia, head of the Vatican Delegation to a Council of Europe meeting on eliminating violence against women, said that such violence "has as its root cause a diffuse, mostly unexpressed conviction that women are not equal to men and that therefore it is normal for a man to subject women to his own will or to have them serve his pleasure. "(6) Negative characteristics of society are both cause and effect of the problem -- most notably pornography and advertising which uses women as objects for promoting products. No justification can be found for violence or discrimination against women, said Mejia. The bishop does not see the church as part of the problem, but as a defender of women's equality and complementarity: "We affirm ... that the complementarity that exists within the difference between man and woman should be respected precisely because they are equal in dignity."

Bishop Mejia does not take into account the impact of the notion of complementarity on women's lives or the feminist critiques of complementarity. Complementarity posits in each sex particular characteristics from which the other is excluded and which determine which qualities and roles should be fostered. It is a dualistic model that has served in this century as an attempt by Catholic church hierarchy to hold in check implications of the personal equality which the church has affirmed. Theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson characterizes complementarity as a notion that relies on stereotypes, ignores its own social conditioning, and denies the wholeness of human experience. It operates as a smokescreen for the subordination of women.(7) From the Vatican perspective, however, complementarity best represents the "truth" about male/female relations, and assumptions of complementarity undergird all statements about marriage and about roles of women and men.

There is no doubt that the Vatican is opposed to violence against women. However, the way the issue is addressed emphasizes violence in war conditions and in sexual exploitation of women for profit (whether in prostitution or pornography). There is no room for the harsh reality of domestic violence in their idealized view of marriage and family. In 1994 and 1995 the pope chose to address his message for the World Day of Peace to the family (1994) and women (1995). In "The Family Creates the Peace of the Human Family,"John Paul II speaks of the family as the victim of violence-from war, economic pressure, or from patterns of behavior inspired by hedonism and consumerism. "Frequent arguments between parents," is the closest to family violence that the message comes. The pope warns against seeing separation or divorce as a solution to endangered family peace.(8) Domestic violence, however, is not a matter of "arguments." It is a matter of force and control which have already destroyed peace.

In his 1995 message for the World Day of Peace the pope urged women to become "teachers of peace" because it is to women that God has entrusted the care and nurturance of the human being in a special way, in accord with "the logic of the complementary roles" of women and men. The pope is concerned that women are not respected and appreciated "in their own special dignity." The latter phrase is indicative of the ideology of complementarity, in which women's dignity is different than men's. The message continues by describing the "singularly important role" mothers have in rearing children and the assistance they need when left alone with children as a result of "profound crises." The somewhat disjointed message then briefly turns to problems resulting from the "intolerable custom" of discrimination between boys and girls. When women are able to share their gifts, society is improved; yet their public role should not detract from their unique role in the family. The pope decries the exploitation of women and young girls as "victims of a materialistic and hedonistic outlook which views them as mere objects of pleasure" and organizes them into a despicable trade.(9) The pope also speaks of dramatic increases in kinds of violence: "Women and even children are unfortunately among the most frequent victims of this blind violence. We are speaking of outrageous and barbaric behavior which is deeply abhorrent to the human conscience."(10) The emphasis appears to be on the spread of violence to noncombatant women and children in war (and probably most directly to the rapes of women in Bosnia). This particular text is an example of multiple papal statements of the twentieth century that attempt to "defend" women and "advance" their cause and yet at the same time express profound resistance to change in women's role and place in society.

No reference to domestic violence is made in three Vatican documents that address marriage: John Paul II's lengthy "Letter to Families" for the U.N. International Year of the Family (1994); the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education's Directives for forming seminarians for ministry to marriage and family; and the Pontifical Council for the Family's guidelines for marriage preparation.(11) Silence in these documents means a missed opportunity for the church to take a pro-active stance against domestic violence by educating not only couples, but those who minister to them.

Violence against women (though not explicitly domestic violence) is addressed in four other recent Vatican texts because these texts are responses to the themes of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.(12) In an address to the conference, Mary Ann Glendon, head of the Holy See's delegation, sums up the papal stance which views violence against women as a social problem unconnected to the church:

The Conference has, however, rendered a great service by casting a spotlight on violence toward women and girls, violence which may be physical, sexual, psychological or moral. Much more needs to be done in all our societies to identify the range and the causes of violence against women. The extent of sexual violence against women in the industrialized nations, as it becomes more evident, comes often as a shock to their populations. The fact of the use in this 20th century of sexual violence as an instrument of armed conflict has stunned the conscience of humanity.

All such forms of violence against women should be condemned, and social policies to eliminate the causes of such violence should be given priority consideration.(13)

The document continues by linking violence against women with commercial exploitation of sexuality:

The question of violence experienced by women is also linked to those factors which underlie the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture, which encourages systematic exploitation of sexuality and especially reduces women to the role of sex objects. Should the conference not condemn such attitudes, it could well be accused of condoning the very root causes of much violence against women and girls.(14)
The Vatican is correct to link violence against women to systematic exploitation that has economic roots. By emphasizing these roots the Catholic church acts as critic of contemporary culture. But have not church leadership and male Christians for millennia also benefitted from relegating women to second class citizens in the church and in society? The Catholic church cannot stand to one side and condemn sexist attitudes in others without examining its own participation in sexism. Often this participation is through biblical and theological interpretation.


One biblical text that deserves examination is that of the Letter to the Ephesians, especially Eph. 5:21-33, part of a longer segment of the letter (Eph. 5:21-6:9). This latter text is one of the "household codes" of the New Testament. Such codes also appear in the works of other Greco-Roman authors (some would root the codes in Aristotle) and serve as exhortations that outline the duties of the "ruler" and "ruled" in the family and the city. The codes may be seen as evidence of concern that disruption of authority in the household would threaten stability in the state. The inclusion of household codes in the New Testament may be attempts by New Testament authors (later than Paul) to defend their communities against charges that Christians were upsetting the social hierarchy. Their formulations may have been attempts to exhort accommodation to the more conservative Greco-Roman expectations which were themselves already being upset and outmoded by increased participation of women in the public sphere in the early imperial period.(15)

New Testament scholar Mary Rose D'Angelo recommends that because the household codes have been used to endorse slavery and battering that they "should be read liturgically or cited as scripture only to be challenged."(16) This Ephesians text, however, is frequently used by both the pope and U.S. bishops without challenge; rather, it is used with endorsement when they write about spousal relationships. They rest their confidence on their belief that the text is based on a notion of mutuality. Eph. 5:21-33 has already been mentioned as cited in the U.S. bishops' document "When I Call for Help." Citations of this biblical text occur frequently when spousal relations are considered in church documents.(17)

In his long apostolic letter of 1988 entitled "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" (Mulieris Dignitatem), John Paul II alludes to the image of the Trinity in speaking about the communion of love which man and woman are called to mirror in their own love (MD #7).(18) It is unfortunate, however, that the pope does not develop the image of the Trinity as a model for marriage. Instead, he chooses to dwell at length on Eph.5:21-33. The analogy between Christ/ church and husband/wife, which is unique to this version of the household code, seems to be what draws the pope (and earlier popes as well) to this text.

John Paul II declares that there is no contradiction between the exhortation that husbands should love their wives and that wives should be subject to their husbands in everything. This is because verse 21 calls for a mutual subjection ("Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ"). The Pope admits that in the Christ/Church relationship the subjection is only on the part of the church, but he claims that between husband and wife the subjection is mutual (MD#24).

The pope fails to note that in the text there is no mutuality in the verses that follow 21. Wives are to be subject in all things and to see that they respect (some translations, such as the Anchor Bible, say "fear") their husbands.(19) Husbands, on the other hand, are to be the head of their wives and to love them as their own bodies, thereby loving themselves. Some exegetes read verse 21 as properly belonging to the context before and after the household code and not as the principle which guides the code.(20) Husbands are not instructed to submit to their wives but to their own superiors in the Greco-Roman social hierarchy, elder men, governors, emperor.(21) The mutual subordination is hierarchical with each subordinate honoring those above; it does not mean mutuality of husband and wife in the modern sense that both U.S. bishops and Pope John Paul II regularly assert.

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza notes the power of the Christ-church analogy (Eph.5:23-32) to the husband-wife relationship that is embedded within the household code:

This theological paradigm reinforces the cultural-patriarchal pattern of subordination, insofar as the relationship between Christ and the church clearly is not a relationship between equals, since the church-bride is totally dependent and subject to her head or bridegroom. Therefore, the general injunction for all members of the Christian community, "Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ," is clearly spelled out for the Christian wife as requiring submission and inequality.

As the church is subordinated to Christ, so the wife has to subject herself in everything. The phrase, "in everything,". . . here underlines the subordinate position of the wife (v.24). 5:22 insists that the submission of the wife to her husband is on a par with her religious submission to Christ, the Lord .(22)

Although the patriarchal-societal code, already in existence, was modified in Ephesians by the application to marriage of Jesus' commandment "to love your neighbor as yourself," the submission of the wife is reinforced by the text and justified by its Christology.(23) This is hardly what most women would today understand as "mutuality." The pope and the bishops claim that the overarching principle of the text is mutual submission while the text itself teaches a hierarchical order. This is parallel to church leadership's theoretical acknowledgment of equality between men and women while church praxis is always based on complementarity (sexual inequality).

But there is more to the pope's Ephesians exegesis in Mulieris Dignitatem than the claim that this text teaches mutual subjection. Referring to the terminology of the Bride and Bridegroom which is implicit in the imagery of Eph. 5:25-27, John Paul II then uses the "feminine" and "masculine" symbols to uphold Paul VI's exclusion of women from the priesthood (MD#25-26). The bride (the "feminine element") is the symbol of a collective subject -- the church -- a symbol for all human beings called through the church to be the Bride of Christ. Hence the "feminine element" is a symbol for humanity.

The masculine symbol of the Bridegroom represents divinity. As a man, Christ is represented by the image of the Bridegroom and his love is "the model and pattern of all human love, men's love in particular." The distinctness of "masculinity" and "femininity" is present in this analogy of Bridegroom and Bride as well as the way they "complete and explain each other" (MD#25). What is not acknowledged is the "underside" of this teaching. The bride/wife has a passive role. She is the recipient of action on her behalf by the Bridegroom. Even when the wife is called to action by the text, the action is to subordinate herself to her husband. The husband's role, in contrast, is pro-active. He is placed in the superior position by the Christ-church analogy and is exhorted to be caring toward that which belongs to him.(24)

Without consideration of this negative undercurrent in the text, John Paul II then relates the symbolic dimension of the Ephesians text to the Eucharist (the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride):

Since Christ, in instituting the Eucharist, linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the Apostles, it is legitimate to conclude that he thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is "feminine" and what is "masculine". It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of Redemption. It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts "in persona Christi," is performed by a man. (MD# 26)
So the very text that is claimed to express mutuality and reciprocity between men and women is being used here to explain why it is that women should be excluded from priestly ministry. Clearly the mutuality envisioned is not what women desire; instead it is another form of complementarity. A text that battered women testify has often been used by violent men to humiliate women, bring them into submission, and justify battery is here being used by church leadership to assure women of the correctness of an all male priesthood. The "feminine," readers are told, can be a symbol for humanity but not of divinity because Christ was a man. It is difficult to imagine that the ritualizing of this distinction at every Catholic liturgy has no effect on men's sense of superiority over women.


The U.S. Catholic bishops have made some attempts to raise the issue of domestic violence, most notably in their 1992 document "When I Call for Help." The Vatican tends to address violence against women without reference to the violence occurring in homes. On the part of the U.S. Catholic Church and the Vatican, there is reluctance to address the possibility that church teaching may contribute to a climate that supports domestic violence. Church interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33 serves as an example of an insufficiently critical reading that ignores women's experience and biblical scholarship.


  1. The U.S. bishops did include several paragraphs about "Abuse and Neglect" in their document Putting Children and Families First (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference Publication No. 469-4, December 1991), 9. The most important text to date is 'When I Cry for Help" Origins 22 (November 5, 1992): 353-358. An opportunity to educate on the matter was passed over in the 1993 document Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families, developed by the Committee on Marriage and Family. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference Publication No. 677-8, November 1993.) This text idealizes the family and, while the bishops pledge to advocate for the most vulnerable, they make no mention of domestic abuse. In a pastoral message called "Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action," the bishops note domestic violence as one of the kinds of violence facing local communities and that the church can be the first point of referral for spousal abuse. It recommends incorporating ways to handle family conflict in religious education and sacramental preparation programs. U.S. Bishops Conference, "Confronting a Culture of Violence," Origins 24 (December 1, 1994): 422-428.

  2. For a brief historical overview see Margaret A. Farley, "Sources of Sexual Inequality in the History of Christian Thought," The Journal of Religion 56 (April 1976): 162-176.

  3. Gloria Durka, "Facing Ourselves, Facing the Unfamiliar," Religious Education 86 (1994): 337.

  4. The closest the U.S. bishops have come to acknowledging the need for reflection on sexism by the church is in their 1994 pastoral reflection "Strengthening the Bonds of Peace," Origins 24 (December 1, 1994): 417-422.

  5. USCC Publication No. 546-1 (November 1992) and in Origins 22 (November 5, 1992): 353-358. "When I Call for Help" was jointly proposed by the Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life and the Bishops' Committee on Women in Society and in the Church. The recommendation that the church denounce violence against women in its preaching, teaching, and ministries was made in the third and fourth drafts of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on women, which was never approved by the full bishops' Conference. See "One in Christ Jesus: Fourth Draft of the U.S. bishops' Response to the Concerns of Women for Church and Society," Origins 22 (September 10, 1992): 238.

  6. Bishop Jorge Mejia, "The Roots of Violence against Women," Origins 23 (November 4, 1993): 371.

  7. Elizabeth A. Johnson, "The Maleness of Christ," in The Special Nature of Women? eds. Anne Carr and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Concilium 1991:6 (Philadelphia: SCM Press, 1991): 110.

  8. John Paul II, Origins 23 (December 23, 1993): 481-485.

  9. John Paul II, "Women: Teachers of Peace," Origins 24 (December 22, 1994): 467.

  10. Ibid., 469.

  11. John Paul II, "Letter to Families," Origins 23 (March 3, 1994): 637-659; Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, "Forming Seminarians for Ministry to Marriage and Family," Origins 25 (August 10, 1995): 161-167; Pontifical Council for the Family, "Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage," Origins 26 (July 4, 1996): 99ff.

  12. John Paul II, "Letter to Women," Origins 25 (July 27, 1995): 137-143; John Paul II, "Appeal to the Church on Women's Behalf," Origins 25 (September 7, 1995): 185 and 187; Mary Ann Glendon, "Vatican Delegation in Beijing," Origins 25 (September 14, 1995): 203-206; Mary Ann Glendon, "Vatican Stance: Women's Conference Final Document," Origins 25 (September 28, 1995): 233-236.

  13. Mary Ann Glendon, "Vatican Delegation in Beijing," Origins 25 (September 14, 1995): 205.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Kathleen E. Corley, "I Peter," in Searching the Scriptures Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza with the assistance of Ann Brock and Shelly Matthews (New York: Crossroad, 1994): 351. See also D.L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in I Peter (SBL Monograph Series 26; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), part 1; Sarah J. Tanzer, "Ephesians," in Searching the Scriptures Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary, 330-332, Tanzer argues that the codes are not inconsistent with the more patriarchal of Pauline positions. The other household codes are Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7.

  16. Mary Rose D'Angelo, "Colossians," in Searching the Scriptures Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary, 323. The Colossians code has emphasis on slavery although it too includes exhortations to women and children. The code in I Peter is looked upon as most damaging in terms of domestic violence since it is explicit that the ruled should imitate Jesus' example of acceptance of unjust suffering. See Corley, 354-357. In light of this, one might argue that it is fortunate that church teaching has emphasized the code of Ephesians rather than I Peter.

  17. Eph. 5:21-33 has been used in Casti Connubi; Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1965), no. 9; John Paul II, "The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family" (198 1), no. 12 ff.

  18. John Paul II, "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women," USCC Publication No. 244-6. 1 will use the abbreviation of the Latin title (MD) and the paragraph numbers to cite passages.

  19. Marcus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY. Doubleday and Company, 1974): 607, and notes on 648-650.

  20. Sarah J. Tanzer, "Ephesians, " in Searching the Scriptures Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary, 333-334.

  21. Corley, p. 353. This is more explicit in the household code of I Peter (2:17 and 5:5) but the same principle is behind the code in Ephesians.

  22. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1984): 269. See also E. Elizabeth Johnson, "Ephesians," in The Woman's Bible Commentary ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992): 341.

  23. Fiorenza, 269.

  24. Tanzer, 338.

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