It is tragic, even scandalous, that in the 21st century, the Catholic Church, which incorporates the transformative wisdom of the Second Vatican Council along with a challenging and robust catalogue of Catholic Social Teaching, continues to subject Catholics to lectionary texts that explicitly encourage the subordination of women and enslaved peoples. Yet, these exhortations are part of our Sunday and weekday readings — teachings that Catholics will hear and assimilate.
On the one hand, these teachings will confirm their most destructive impulses, their sense of superiority, and their notions of privilege as divinely sanctioned. For example, survivors of domestic violence know that abusers see biblical texts that subordinate as one of the rationales supporting their dangerous, controlling, and abusive behavior. White supremacists and those who consciously or unconsciously employ white privilege to dominate people of color are emboldened by biblical texts that encourage enslaved peoples to obey their masters. They conflate their worst xenophobic, nativist biases with the will of God.
On the other hand, many Catholics will feel the pain and shame of knowing these Catholic teachings contradict the values of the Gospel by explicitly promoting domination of one group or one gender over another. They will rightly cringe upon hearing these texts and advocate for change.
What Catholics hear on the Feast of the Holy Family and the placement of other Lectionary texts that subordinate
Feast of the Holy Family
Colossians 3: 12-21 exhorts women to be subordinate to their husbands, “as is proper in the Lord.” This is the second reading proclaimed for the Feast of the Holy Family during the Christmas season every year. Because this reading falls on a Sunday and a feast day, greater numbers of Catholics hear it and assimilate it as sacred teaching on family life.
There are optional readings. Colossians 3:12-17 excises the subordinating text and can be substituted for the longer reading. Also, in Year B, Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19 is an option and in Year C, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 is an option. Yet, because the longer reading, Colossians 3:12-21 is listed first, it is too often chosen as the reading for that feast day.
Twenty-first Sunday, Ordinary Time, Year B
Similarly, Ephesians 5:21-32 exhorts “wives to be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” This admonition is heard on the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary time in Year B. There is an optional shorter reading. Ephesians 5: 25-32 excludes the subordinating text, but because it is optional, the longer text is too often used.
Ritual celebrations, such as weddings offer Ephesians 5:21-32, Ephesians 5:21-33, or 1 Peter 3:1-9 as options for readings. All three texts admonish women to be subordinate to their husbands. There are approved shorter readings that excise admonitions to be subordinate — Ephesians 5:2a, 23-33 or 5:2a, 25-32.
Thirtieth Tuesday in Ordinary Time, Year II
Ephesians 3:21-33 which exhorts wives to be subordinate is heard on the Thirtieth Tuesday in Ordinary Time on even years.
Thirtieth Wednesday, Ordinary Time, Year II
Ephesians 6: 1-9 which exhorts slaves to obey their masters is heard on the Thirtieth Wednesday in Ordinary Time on even years.
Thirty-Second Tuesday in Ordinary Time, Year II
Titus 2:1-8, 11-14 which exhorts older women to train younger women to be “under the control of their husbands” is heard on the Thirty-Second Tuesday in Ordinary Time on even years.
And while these troubling texts are heard on weekdays, and therefore to a more limited group of the faithful, it is clear that their presence in our lectionary is deeply problematic and even sinful given today’s understanding of the Gospel mandate for gender justice and racial justice.
When the Lectionary fails to be an instrument of the Gospel
The Sunday lectionary is the only canon heard, read, preached, or studied by most church-going Catholics. The Sunday lectionary is also the cornerstone for many Bible studies, catechetical programs, and spiritual guides.
When selections from the lectionary are proclaimed during the liturgy, they are concluded with the phrase ‘’The Word of the Lord” or “The Gospel of the Lord” to which the assembly verbalizes its assent. The members of a worshipping assembly enter into a liturgical process that evokes remembrance, and by listening to and affirming the lectionary readings the Word becomes “real and present’’ in their minds and hearts. The liturgical process is designed to lead the assembly to internalize what is heard as a matter of faith.
The goal of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was to cover as much of the Bible as possible. Thus many more books and passages of the Bible were made available to Catholics through the scripture readings at Sunday and daily Mass. The widely-held assumption has been that the lectionary faithfully presents the essence of the Bible, with the omission of only a few troubling or gory passages.
But, a lectionary, by its very nature, excludes some ancient traditions as it includes others, recasts its selections into designated collections, and assigns each collection to a particular context in the church calendar. Thus, devising any lectionary produces a “canon within the canon” with the selections being under the control of ordained males.
Therefore, many scriptures left out of the lectionary including scriptures about women. Women’s books, women’s experiences and women’s accomplishments have been largely overlooked in the assigned scripture readings that are being proclaimed in our churches on Sundays and weekdays.
When women and female images are “erased” or distorted, it has real consequences for the entire Body of Christ, but especially for women. The witness of women that is provided in an already androcentric Bible, is further narrowed in the lectionary canon. When females and female images are marginalized in the lectionary, women are interpreted as marginal. Furthermore, when androcentric, misogynistic, racist, and patriarchal texts are emphasized (as we note in the above section), Catholics internalize those messages and assume they are part of the divinely designed social order. This has disturbing, even dangerous consequences for marginalized groups and women.
Underlying these texts that explicitly promote the subordination of women or their erasure from the lectionary is patriarchal framework that reflects and reinscribes misogyny. Dr. Regina Boisclair shows how lectionary readings chosen from the Hebrew Scriptures are light on lessons that highlight positive, empowering female imagery for God, and heavy on lessons that frame women such as Eve and Sarah as dangerous, weak, submissive, or disposable. When these scriptures are paired with a Gospel reading, another aspect of the unconscious androcentric interpretive framework is introduced into the lectionary by the compilers suggesting that women are “derivative of men, dangerous to men, and except as mothers of sons, they are disposable by men…”
In her book length study, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, womanist Biblical scholar Dr. Renita J. Weems traces the patriarchal foundations of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible to show how women bodies, as metaphor, reveal sacralized misogyny and even violence against women. The correlation repeatedly drawn between divine judgment and husbands battering their wives is “haunting and telling” according to Weems.
While much more can be written about “texts of terror” in the Bible, it is clear that androcentrism and misogyny serve as the foundation for the subordinating texts that Catholics hear at Mass.
Social Inequities Reinforced in the Lectionary and Black Catholic Voices
Catholics still hear Ephesians 6:1-9 which exhorts slaves to obey their masters. While this is read every other year on a Wednesday in Ordinary time, the proclamation of this text in any Catholic Church at any time runs counter to the prophetic voice of the Black Catholics, and especially the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (BCCC), who, in 1968, called the Catholic Church out for its role in racism after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. They wrote, “the Catholic Church the United States, primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely a part of that society.” Further they noted that the Church was “not cognizant of changing attitudes in the black community and is not making the necessary, realistic adjustments.”
Later in 1968, the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) pledged “unceasingly for the liberation of black people.” The sisters proclaimed “expressions of individual and institutional racism found in our society within our Church are declared by us to be categorically evil and inimical the freedom of all men everywhere, and particularly destructive of people in America.”
The ongoing proclamation of Ephesians 6:1-9 is an important example of how the sin of racism still plays out in the church running counter to the message of the Gospel.
Learn more from our educational resource and find downloadable letters for the USCCB Committee on Divine Liturgy and for your bishop, priest, and local newspapers.
Please join our campaign to reform the Catholic Lectionary today!