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"Transitory Character" . . . Only in "Disciplinary Cases of Minor Importance"? by Juliana Caseyfrom 'Women Priests'

"Transitory Character" . . . Only in "Disciplinary Cases of Minor Importance"?

by Juliana Casey

from Women Priests,Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp 202-204.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Juliana Casey, IHM, obtained the S.T.D. from the Universiteit Katholieke te Leuven, Louvain, Belgium. She was at the time Assistant Professor of New Testament at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana. She served as a member of the Theological Commission of the Archdiocese of Detroit from 1963-1966.

These two sentences refer to the "claim" that certain Pauline statements are of a "transitory character." The document says that these statements are "scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance." It gives the example of the wearing of veils by women. Such requirements, it declares, "no longer have a normative value." While few would argue today that women must wear veils in the Christian assembly, the question is not quite so simple.

It is not clear that those Pauline statements which have been seen to be transitory or which have been corrected by later generations are simply "disciplinary practices of minor importance." Paul's attitude towards civil authority in statements such as those of Rom 13:1-7 where he says, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (13:1), and that "He who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed" (13:2), or that everyone must pay taxes, "for the authorities are ministers of God," (13:6)(1), would find little acceptance among the world's oppressed, the political prisoners, the victims of torture or the families of those legions who have "disappeared " under totalitarian regimes. Further, the oft-repeated Pauline statement that slaves must "obey in everything those who are your earthly masters" (Col 4:22)(2) has been clearly contradicted by both the teaching and the actions of the Roman Catholic Church. While these statements were undoubtedly conditioned by the attitude toward authority prevailing in the first century world, they nonetheless refer to something more fundamental than disciplinary practices and they have nonetheless subsequently been seen as having a transitory character.

The same is true of Paul's attitude concerning both women and marriage. While statements concerning the adornment of women (cf. 1 Tim 2:9) are clearly reflections of contemporary customs, those in which we are told that "man is the head of woman as Christ is the head of man" (1 Cor 11:2ff.; cf. also Eph 5:23) and that wives must be subject to husbands Col 3:18; cf. Eph 5:22,24), or the later statements that women are to learn in silence (1 Tim 2:11), that no woman is to teach or to have authority over men (1 Tim 2:12) and that woman will be saved through bearing children (1 Tim 2:15) are hardly compatible with the present-day understanding of the dignity of each person, or with the document's own. introductory statement that women have played a "decisive role and accomplished tasks of outstanding value" in the history of the Church. The last statement concerning salvation through the bearing of children is clearly in contradiction with the Church's unfailing encouragement of celibate women's religious communities. Further, the Pauline understanding of marriage as a concession to temptations of immorality as it is expressed in 1 Cor 7:1-9 is hardly the same understanding reflected in documents such as Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes. These statements, while clearly beyond the realm of "minor disciplinary practices," have generally come to be accepted as somewhat less than binding upon the consciences of the faithful, and their "transitory character" has subsequently been accepted as obvious.

There are, then, numerous teachings within the Pauline epistles which were written out of a particular cultural, sociological framework and which reflect the general opinion of the social milieu contemporaneous to the composition of the epistles. These statements deal with some very fundamental issues such as relationship to civil authorities, slavery and freedom, marriage, the dignity of woman. They are not all "scarcely more than minor disciplinary practices," yet they are all regarded today as less than normative(3). The question of Paul's attitude toward women and toward their participation in the Church, then, cannot be answered by dismissing some statements as unimportant and preserving others which are seen as based upon firmer ground, such as Paul's idea of creation (4).

The statements in these two sentences of the document, it appears to us, are based upon a limited and somewhat arbitrary view of those texts in the Pauline literature which have been generally accepted as no longer having a normative value. Further, the authors of the document introduce a false distinction between disciplinary practices and other, more important statements. Finally, they mistakenly limit the influence of the customs of the period to minor statements such as those concerning such things as the wearing of veils. Clearly, these customs—and the world-view which inspired them—are responsible for some rather profound and oft-repeated statements within the epistles. One need only think of the acceptance and practice of slavery for an cxamplc.

A final word should perhaps be added concerning the language of this particular section of the document. One would have wished that such an important and decidedly controversial document could have been written with more care and exactitude. The question of the normative value of certain scriptural passages is a serious one and demands more than a casual dismissal of certain texts as "scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance." The debate concerning the meaning of these texts has been carried on by many serious and committed scholars. Expressions such as "one claims to see" do justice neither to those who have given of their effort and their science to correctly understand the word of God, nor to a declaration published by such an important body as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


1. See also Tit 3:10.

2. This same idea is found in 1 Cor 7:21-24; Eph 6:5-8; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10.

3. It should be noted here that beyond those texts already mentioned, other statements such as those concerning the marital status of bishops (1 Tim 3:1-7) and the dangers of younger widows who grow wanton against Christ (1 Tim 5:11), the reference to the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus (1 Thess 2:13-14), the prescription that Christians should not be "unequally yoked with unbelievers" (2 Cor 6:14), could be added to the list of those texts which are either ignored or considered as less than absolutely binding.

4. The following sentences in the document do this when they base the prescription concerning women speaking in the assembly upon Paul's understanding of the plan of creation. It should be noted, however, that the document contradicts itself here, for the text which it cites to support this position (1 Cor 11:7) is actually part of Paul's argument for the necessity of the wearing of veils—a prescription which it has dismissed as no longer having normative value.

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