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Stuck in the Middle Ages? Women in the Catholic Church

How did women, whom Jesus treated as equals, become second class Christians? Why have they retained this inferior status until today, especially in the Roman Catholic church? When will it change?

A book I recently read, Women in Christianity by the Swiss born theologian and Roman Catholic priest Hans Küng, an emeritus professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany, gives some answers — and leaves one big question open.

In earliest Christianity gender differences didn't affect life in the church, which back then was nothing but a community of free and equal people. But with the institutionalization of the church hierarchical structures replaced egalitarian relationships. Add to that a devaluation of education especially for women in late antiquity, and we have a perfect storm that reduced women to their biology. Going forth, men dominated in all areas of public life and usually in the home, too.

In the Middle Ages, the sexuality-averse teachings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas only solidified things. Like Aristotle before them, these two men saw women as deficient relative to men. Though the Protestant churches developed in more fortunate ways, the Roman Catholic church has been stuck in that paradigm created hundreds of years ago. Küng speaks of a mediaeval Roman Catholic hierarchy "which has remained mediaeval down to the twentieth century." True to the ideals of Augustine and Thomas, it "propagates celibacy for the clergy even in the face of thousands of parishes without pastors, and wants to tie sexual  pleasure in the sphere of marriage to the procreation of children."

Küng writes precisely and clearly, yet I found Women in Christianity hard to read. The book packs 2,000 years of gender relations in the church into 100 pages, and it's an emotional challenge. At the end of his book, Küng, whom the Vatican barred from teaching at Roman Catholic universities in the 1970s, urges Rome to rethink its stance on a number of issues. Not surprisingly, his proposals include to end the requirement of celibacy for priests and to admit women to the priesthood. The renowned theologian points out that he first suggested these amendments in 1976. In the almost forty years since then, Rome hasn't even blinked.

The question is: What will it take to make the change happen?

- - -

Women in Christianity
By Hans Küng. 140 pp. Bloomsbury Academic

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