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Woman as Mother from 'Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Woman as Mother

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp 49-66.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


We need to keep in mind the precariousness of survival in ancient Palestine as we begin our study of the status of the Israelite mother. On the basis of medical records from our own not too distant past, we have to assume an extremely high rate of infant and maternal mortality. II Chronicles 11:21 and 13:21 may preserve a hint of this. Rehoboam's 78 consorts (18 wives and 60 concubines) bore only eighty-eight children for an average of only one and thirteen hundredth's children each. Abijah's 14 wives had thirty-eight children for.an average of two and one tenth each. Presumably these totals list only surviving children. A very high mortality rate in the population as a whole from infection, disease, famine, and war must be added to the high infant and maternal mortality rate.

Group survival must have been the primary issue fac-ing the Israelites most of the time. The childbearers, those who replenished the strength of the family, may be presumed to have had an importance in ancient Israel nearly inconceivable to those of us living in an age facing overpopulation. Preoccupation with survival, therefore, is the context out of which one important part of the record of the status of woman in the Old Testament was written.

The role of woman as mother will be studied under three major headings: childbearing and bereavement, conception and birth, and the care of children.


Childbearing was a social function in ancient Israel, and fecundity, barrenness, and the loss of children were of urgent concern to men, women, and the nation.

Two late passages and a description of the Levirate illustrate the importance of offspring for the husband. The first passage is a wisdom psalm which describes the blessing given the righteous man:

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Lo, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
(Ps. 128:3f.)

The second example, Is. 56:4f., is one of the group of late poems with which The Book of Isaiah closes. Here, eunuchs who are faithful to the Lord are promised "a monument and a name better than sons and daughters." Daughters and sons must have been very important for them to have been the norm by which divine reward was measured!

The Levirate conveys to us the importance of a wife who bore sons for her husband. The legal provision for the practice describes it clearly:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deut. 25:5f.)

The latter half of the law (vs. 7-10) deals with the punishment of the man who refuses to perform the duty. The widow could protest to the village elders. Should he continue to evade his responsibility, the widow could insult him and his family.

The law of the Levirate is the basis of two narratives, the story of the patriarch Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38:6-26) and The Book of Ruth. Practices in The Book of Ruth deviate from the Levirate as described in Deut. 25:5-10. The book contains other enigmas also. But the narrative in Gen., ch. 38, is based upon the law as we have just seen it defined in Deuteronomy:

And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD slew him. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also. Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Remain a widow in your father's house, till Shelah my son grows up." (Gen. 38:6-11a)

But Shelah was not given to Tamar as her husband.

When Judah went out to supervise some sheep-shearing, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and waited beside the road. Judah saw her, did not recognize her, and patronized her. He left his signet and staff in pledge for a kid from the flock to be delivered later as payment After he left, Tamar removed her disguise and returned home. Judah's servants, trying to deliver the kid, could find no one and could not redeem Judah's signet and

When Tamar later was found to be pregnant, Judah commanded that she be killed. He revoked his order when she proved his paternity by producing his signet and staff (vs. 24f.) She was guilty of adultery to her dead husband, but Judah was guilty of not making available to her another of his sons. He himself judged his offense to have been the greater (v. 26). The conclusion of the story, incidentally, is that she bore twins, both sons.

Other passages also make clear the importance of sons to the husband. Leah, the wife with the weak eyes, was fecund, and Rachel, whom Jacob loved, was barren. According to popular tradition, the names that Leah gave her sons reflected her hope that Jacob would come to love her because of the sons she was bearing him:

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben [i.e., "See, a son"]; for she said, "Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me." (Gen. 29:32; see vs. 33f. for the births of Simeon and Levi)

Other passages report women's attitude toward the mother of sons. Rachel, in fatal labor, was encouraged by the midwife, "Fear not; for now you will have another son" (Gen. 35:17), as was the wife of Phinehas in like circumstances (I Sam. 4:20). And Naomi's grandson is described as "a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age" (Ruth 4:15) by the women of the village. Even pregnancy without hint of the sex of the child was greatly desired. When Sarai saw that she was barren, she gave Abram her maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine. When Hagar conceived, she looked with contempt on her mis-tress (Gen. 16:4).

The intensity of women's longing for sons is epitomized by Rachel's cry to Jacob, "Give me children, or I hall die!" (Gen. 30:lb). For the time being, Rachel had to be content with seeking sons born to Jacob through the maidservant she had given him as a concubine.(26) Finally, "God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, 'God has taken away my reproach'; and she called his name Joseph [i.e., 'He adds'], saying, 'May the LORD add to me another son!' " (Gen. 30:22f.).

If further confirmation of the importance of sons be needed, it is provided by passages describing the severity of their loss. When Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites, he said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women" (I Sam. 15:33). The wise woman of Tekoa, used by Joab to persuade David to restore Absalom to the court after Absalom had caused the death of a brother, represented herself as a widow who once had had two sons. One had killed the other, and the village elders wished to execute the survivor for his crime. "Thus they would quench my coal which is left, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant upon the face of the earth" (II Sam. 14:7b). This passage is particularly important because it identifies the concern of the mother both for herself and for her husband. Her spark of life would be extinguished, and her husband's family would be cut off.

We will return to the mother's concern for her "coal" in a different context. Here, we can complete our description of the genealogical importance of sons. The name "Isaac," given to the son of Abraham and Sarah, was derived from the root "laugh," and the Israelite's love for puns probably accounts for the evocation of the pun twice on the mother's lips and once on the father's (Gen. 12:12; 17:17-19; 21:6f.). Pun or not, however, the survival of Abraham's family was no laughing matter.

Abraham had been promised descendants by God (Gen. 12:2, 7; 13:16; etc.).(27) Each time the transmission of the promise seems threatened by events, divine activity is reported. During the Egyptian enslavement, when the Pharaoh commanded all male Israelite children to be killed (an edict which would have exterminated the descendants of Abraham in a single generation had it been enforced), the midwives who deceived the Egyptians are blessed by God and the people increased (Ex. 1:15-22). During the Babylonian exile, when the people were dispersed and their institutions had been disrupted, the Second Isaiah (the author of Isa., chs. 40 to 55) recalled the gift of a son to Abraham and Sarah:

Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for when he was but one I called him,
and I blessed him and made him many.
(Isa. 51:2)

So certain was the prophet that God would honor his promise that Israel would be a mighty nation that he proclaimed as the word of the Lord to an enslaved and discouraged people:

The children born in the time of your bereavement
will yet say in your ears:
"The place is too narrow for me;
make room for me to dwell in."
(Isa. 49:20)

As has been true here several times, we find confirmation in legislation of a motif stated in song and story. The Deuteronomic law code revived the ancient concept of the holy war, yet it held the siring of children to be so important that a member of the sacred militia was excused from military duty until he had had opportunity to beget offspring (Deut. 24:5).

The importance accorded the wife as mother is stated tersely by the Yahwist: "The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20). Every culture provides for specialization by function. In the Old Testament, the name of the husband provided continuity from generation to generation, and thus wives bore sons for their husbands. But the woman was given the awesome role of being "the mother of all living."


The description of a differentiation of function in the family is not enough by itself to permit us to derive a statement of the status, or the importance, of woman in the Old Testament. A further category of evidence is needed, a description of the ancient Israelite's knowledge of the process of conception and birth.

The Israelites understood something of the function of the male's semen in conception. This has already been reported in this chapter in the story of Judah's attempt to secure a son for a dead son by Onan, the deceased's brother. "But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother" (Gen. 38:9). We also have the notation that Bathsheba conceived after David "lay with her" (II Sam. ll:4f.), and the report of Isaiah: "I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son" (Isa. 8:3a). What seems not to have been understood was the growth of the fetus in the womb. The author of Ec-clesiastes, a late wisdom writing, used that mystery as a simile to describe the mystery of God's creative work elsewhere: "As you do not know the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything" (Eccl. 11:5).(28) Nor did they know why some women remained barren after cohabitation.

In place of our descriptions of biological processes, the ancient Israelite attributed conception (or barrenness) and the growth of the fetus to divine action. Samson's mother was barren until "the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, 'Behold you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son' " (Judg. 13:3). The author of Ps. 113:9 wrote:

He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD!

When Rebekah, Isaac's wife, was barren, he "prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived" (Gen. 25-.21).(29)

This theme is found in two of the great law codes. The Deuteronomic law code assured its readers that "there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle" (Deut. 7:14b; see also vs. 12f., 30:9f.) if they were faithful to their covenant with God. In the Priestly legislation, it is said of a woman acquitted in a trial result ing from a false charge of infidelity that "she shall be free and shall conceive children" (Num. 5:28).

Although God is sometimes said to have been respon-sible for opening the womb when the child being born was to become a "man of God," this is not as frequent as we would expect. We have already noted here that Samson's mother was told she would "conceive and bear a son" (Judg. 13:3) whom she is to rear as a Nazirite. Samuel was born when the Lord made Hannah fecund after her urgent prayers and her vow to dedicate the son to God's service (I Sam. 1:11). When she kept her vow, "the LORD visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters" (ch. 2:21la; see also Jer. l:4f.). In the majority of cases, however, unusual divine participation is not claimed in the birth of a person later distinguished as a religious leader. No special intervention is recorded in the conception and birth of Moses, for example, or of any prophet other than Jeremiah.

There was an awareness of normal expectation in a woman's capacity to bear children. Sarah's amusement, when she heard that she was to bear a son, was because "it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" and because both she and her husband were old (Gen. 18:11f.). Elisha was befriended by a wealthy woman of Shunem who provided lodging and food when he was there. In return, he promised her a son. She replied, "No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your maidservant" (II Kings 4:16). In both of these cases, we are told that one or both of the parents was too old to expect to have children, apparently to underscore the magnitude of the intervention of God.

Since the Lord was believed to open the womb, God also was held to close it. We are told that God had made Rachel (Gen. 30:2) and Hannah (I Sam. 1:6) barren. In neither case was the husband or the wife said to have displeased God. In other passages, however, childlessness was attributed to sin. If a man lies with his uncle's wife, it will be counted a sin and "they shall die childless" (Lev. 20:20), as shall the woman if a man has intercourse with his brother's wife (v. 21). The bitter exchange between Michal and David after David had danced before the Ark of the Lord closes with the notation that Michal was childless to her death (II Sam. 6:20-23). The implication is that she was being punished for sin, although we are not told what the sin was. What was believed to be true of the individual was also held to be true of the nation, as in Hosea's tragic prophecy:

Ephraim's glory shall fly away like a bird—
no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!
(Hos. 9:11)

God's involvement in conception and birth was so important to the ancient Israelites that they gave it extensive theological significance. When Onan evaded his duty toward his brother's widow, what he did "was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him [Onan] also" (Gen. 38:9f.). In one of the curses with which The Book of Amos opens, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord against the Ammonites

because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead,
that they might enlarge their border.
(Amos l:13b)

In each of these passages, acts that disrupted the deed being done by the Lord in bringing children to birth are judged to be a sin of such gravity that the loss of the life of those guilty was required.

Because no child was born without the participation of the Lord, the birth of a child was a demonstration of God's active presence. Therefore a birth could become a "sign," or an acted word. This may have been the reason that Hosea and Isaiah gave their children names which contained a part of the word of the Lord given to the fathers to proclaim (Hos. 1:2-9; Isa. 7:3; 8:3f.). When the father's message changed, the child's name also apparently could change. Hosea's son "Not my people" became "My people," and the daughter "Not pitied" became "She has obtained pity" (Hos. 1:6, 9; 2:1). Such a name could be quite long. Isaiah's son Maher-shalal-hash-baz must have had a nickname!

This is the context in which one of the more controversial passages in the Old Testament prophets is to be understood:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. Forhoney when he before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isa. 7:14-16)

The same God who controlled the history of Judah also gave new life. The "sign," or proof that the word of the Lord spoken by Isaiah was true, was that the enemy feared by the king would be shattered before a child soon to be conceived could distinguish between good and evil. Giving children names which contained the deity's name or an allusion to the deity was done often in ancient Israel, as it is here. Immanuel means "God with us."

The word of the Lord to Jeremiah that God had formed him in his mother's womb is sung in greater detail by one of the psalmists:

For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works!
Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
(Ps. 139:13-16)

Other psalmists expressed their conviction that God had taken them from their mother's womb (Ps. 22:9f.; 71:6). These, of course, are statements by those who felt them-selves to be especially close to God.

Second Isaiah transferred to the nation what other passages say of the righteous individual:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the LORD who made you,
who formed you from the womb and will help you:
Fear not, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
(Isa. 44:1f.; see also 46:3f.)

This prophet also used conception and birth as similes to convey the unqualified sovereignty of God:

Woe to him who says to a father, "What are you
or to a woman, "With what are you in travail?"
Thus says the LORD,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
"Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?"
(Isa. 45:10f.)

The laws reserving the firstborn to the Lord may have their rationale in the primacy of God's role in conception and birth. An early law declares, "The LORD said to Moses, 'Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine' " (Ex. 13:1; see also ch. 34:19f. and Num. 8:16-18 for a later witness). Jo-hannes Pedersen explained the sacrifice of the first pro- duce of orchards and fields and the firstborn of woman and beast in these words: "When something alien is to be absorbed [into the life of the holy people], it must be sanctified, Yahweh being given his share; in this way it is ! prepared for appropriation by the special Israelite psy-che."(30) This may be the correct explanation. It also is possible that the return to Yahweh of the first life to come from womb and field was a thank-offering to celebrate God's gift of all subsequent life through that source.

The material we have just reviewed is of such importance for understanding the status of woman in the Old Testament that we need to describe its significance carefully- Earlier in this chapter it was noted that a functional differentiation between the sexes in ancient Israel assigned to the male the formal transmission of the family's name and to the female the bearing of new life. The information just reviewed places the role of the female in its context. New life was held to be the result of a continuing divine activity which took place in conception, the growth of the fetus, and in the opening of the womb.

Thus, although the promise of progeny and name was given the whole people and was recorded as transmitted through the father, the divine presence and activity which guaranteed the progeny was resident in the woman. Her fecundity was the most crucial and clearest proof of God's presence in the midst of the people. The birth of children was testimony to God's continued care for the people.

This statement of the place of woman in ancient Israel seems so basic that I feel justified in turning to it, rather than to an anthropological construct, for the understanding of the significance of the patriarchal traits of Israelite society for the status of woman. This will be discussed later.


Husbands and wives shared responsibility for the rearing of children. A description of the woman's role must not, therefore, be taken to prove that women alone cared for their offspring.

In dealing with something as universal as the relationship of children to parents, we see how pointless it is to claim for a single part of our heritage a decisive role in the formation of our family ideal. What can be noted, however, is the striking way in which reports of an ancient Israelite mother's relationships with her child are intelligible to us. It is this universality which has made the story of Solomon's judgments between two harlots so well known. Each woman, we are told, had just given birth to a child. One of them accidentally suffocated hers during the night. When she discovered it, she exchanged her dead infant for the living infant of her sleeping roommate. One woman accused the other of having changed babies, the charge was denied, and the matter came to Solomon for resolution. His solution to the problem was based upon the conviction that mother love is strong and selfless:

And the king said, "Bring me a sword." So a sword was brought before the king. And the king said, "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other." Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, "Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it." But the other said, "It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it." Then the king answered and said, "Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means slay it; she is its mother." (I Kings 3:24-27)

Less graphic but equally universal in its appeal is the sage's evocation of the mother's love for child when he said:

When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother. ...
(Prov. 4:3)

A more somber story of maternal love is recorded in the account of the expulsion of Hagar at Sarah's demand after the birth of a son to Sarah. Hagar and her son were sent away with what bread and water she could carry,

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Let me not look upon the death of the child." And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept. (Gen. 21:15f.)

Those who know the terrible heat and dryness of the desert find this far too vivid.

Oddly enough, we are given few details of a mother's care for her children. Mothers seem to have traveled with their children (Gen. 33:1f.), sometimes in wagons (Gen. 45:19; 46:5). Hannah made Samuel's clothing and brought it with her each year when she came to Shiloh with her husband (I Sam. 2:19).

An interesting report of a mother's care for a son is given in the account of Solomon's rise to the throne. When it had become clear that David had become senile, Bathsheba, acting on the advice of the prophet Nathan, went to David and said:

My lord, you swore to your maidservant by the LORD your God, saying, "Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne." And now, behold, Adonijah is king, although you, my lord the king, do not know it. He has sacrificed oxen, fatlings, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the sons of the king, Abiathar the priest, and Joab the commander of the army; but Solomon your servant he has not invited. And now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are upon you, to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be counted offenders. (I Kings 1:17-21)

No sooner had she finished than Nathan arrived to reiterate her message (vs. 22-27). David then did precisely what the conspirators desired. He proclaimed Solomon king (vs. 28-30). We do not know whether David had earlier promised Bathsheba that Solomon would succeed him, but the presence of collusion between Nathan and Bathsheba and their manipulation of the emotions of the aged king are clear.

The tribute of the Old Testament to maternal love, and to the care of mothers for their children, is graphically displayed in similes. So crucial was a mother's love that it became an obvious analogy for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. Thus Second Isaiah proclaimed the continuing love of the Lord for the exiled people of Israel:

But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me."
"Can a woman forget her sucking child,
that she should have no compassion on the son
of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me."
(Isa. 49:14-16; see also ch. 66:13)

The strength of ancient Israel's appreciation of the love of the mother for her children made it also a simile for divine judgment. In Deuteronomy, the attempt to convey the magnitude of the devastation of divine judgment produced this incredible passage:

And you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. The man who is the most tender and delicately bred among you will grudge food to his brother, to the wife of his bosom, and to the last of the children who remain to him; so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing left to him, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. The most tender and delicately bred woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot upon the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will grudge to the husband of her bosom, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because she will eat them secretly, for want of all things, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns. (Deut. 28:53-57)

II Kings 6:28f. (and Lam. 2:20; 4:10) make it clear that the Deuteronomic writer was not the victim of an overheated imagination. When we realize the almost unimaginable extremities which were always a possibility in the lives of the ancient Israelites, we finally see that Hosea's bitter words may have been a prayer for the only divine mercy possible in extremity:

Give them, O LORD—
what wilt thou give?
Give them a miscarrying womb
and dry breasts.
(Hos. 9:14)

The material in this chapter is decisive for the understanding of the status of woman in the Old Testament. It has been suggested that survival was the primary concern of a society forced to cope with disease, famine, and incessant war. In their social organization, the ancient Israelites assigned to the male the formal preservation of the basic structure of the society, the family; but to the female belonged the constant replenishment of the pool of life that was the guarantor of the survival of the group. Because they believed passionately that God had promised them survival if they were faithful to God, and because they saw all new life to be the consequence of the Lord's direct intervention, the woman was seen to be a primary locus of divine activity. Her fecundity was a basic evidence of divine care for Israel. Motherhood thus was not only a biological and sociological function. It was a sacred act of great magnitude which only the woman could perform. The very high esteem in which the mother was held was then described, especially as it is reflected in similes of God's care for Israel and of God's judgment upon Israel.

No higher status could be given anyone than was given the mother in ancient Israel.


26. A concubine is a slave who had become a wife. She had rights but was inferior to the wife who was an Israelite freewoman. See McComisky, op. cit., pp. 20-50, for a survey of the legal status of the concubine throughout the ancient Near East.

27. The earliest stratum (J) records the genealogical promise in Gen. 12:2f.; 13:14-17 (where it is linked with the promise of a land); 15:5. E (the second oldest stratum) reports the promise in Gen. 17:17-19. It then appears in P (the latest stratum) in Gen. 17:1-8.

28. RSV margin, a more difficult but perhaps more literal translation. NEB: "You do not know how a pregnant woman comes to have a body and a living spirit in her womb."

29. See Gen. 18:9-15; 29:31-35; 30:1-8, 17f., 22, for similar reports about the wives of other patriarchs.

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