Reading Genesis as a Catholic and a feminist
A Reflection for Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman.’” (Gn 2:23)
Being a Catholic and a feminist can often feel a bit sticky.
I’m speaking from personal experience, but I know I’m not alone. When we at America produce and publish content about women’s roles in the Catholic Church or relationships between women and men or debates about modern gender theory, it never fails to spark passionate (and often heated) conversation.
Some debates are about social norms and traditions related to gender, informed both by Catholic teaching and by the centuries-long secular history of patriarchy. When discussion moves toward biblical roots, though, the ethical snags at hand can become more difficult to untangle or explain away.
What are we supposed to take away from Scripture passages about women? How are we supposed to discern what is eternal divine truth and what is simply the thinking of a different time? These are big questions, ones that not all Christians and not all Catholics agree on in practice. Disregarding Scripture entirely and dismissing it as just outdated and unhelpful doesn’t seem like a fair or satisfying solution. But neither does ignoring the cultural and historical context that undoubtedly influenced the Bible’s authors. Perhaps, rather than trying to land on an answer for all the Bible has to say about gender roles, it will be helpful to start with just a very small piece of Scripture—today’s first reading.
As a feminist, I dream of a world where both women and men have access to safe, happy and fulfilling lives. As a Catholic, I believe that there’s a kind of fulfillment beyond this life that we can’t imagine today.
The reading from Genesis lays the groundwork for a mutual relationship between man and woman; according to Scripture, man (Adam) was created first and couldn’t find a satisfying (or, I suppose, equal) partner in the other creatures God had created. In response, God created woman (Eve) to be with Adam, and she was made from Adam’s very body, from his rib. (As 17th-century Nonconformist minister and biblical commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “[T]he woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”) When Adam and Eve first encounter each other, he is filled with joy, finally having found the partner he was missing, the one made for (and from) him.
Woman’s first appearance in Scripture is, as you can see, a little light on the Eve-specific details. We don’t know too much yet about who she is, how she spends her time, how her life is going to play out. But one thing is clear: She was made with unity and partnership in mind.
There are certainly those who interpret this insight from Scripture in a way that subjugates women, that asks them to submit to men and to take on only traditionally feminine societal roles. But there’s a deeper call here, a human call that is valuable to women and men alike. Biblical women, after all, don’t only have something to teach women. Women can be role models (or their stories can be cautionary tales) to men, too; as we well know, Eve is both.
If we hope to lead full lives, we are not meant to be alone. Today’s reading makes it clear God created Eve for love and unity, yes, but these divine purposes are Adam’s, too. Our responsibility is to each other, to the well-being of our friends and partners and families. In my eyes, the subjugation of women and of other marginalized groups doesn’t fit into that mission. If we are in partnership with one another, we are engaging in something mutual and life-affirming.
As a feminist, I dream of a world where both women and men have access to safe, happy and fulfilling lives. As a Catholic, I believe that there’s a kind of fulfillment beyond this life that we can’t imagine today. I’ll keep fighting to hold onto both.