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The truly Christian response to the menstruation taboo

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The truly Christian response to the menstruation taboo

An early Christian attempt to counteract the taboo

The Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions

During the first Christian centuries there has been a genuinely Christian response to the taboos surrounding a woman's monthly periods in the socalled Disdascalia, a 3rd century pastoral treatise. The author reacts against the ‘Second Legislation’, a movement that tried to make Christians succumb to rabbinical rules and prescriptions. It is a joy to read the text!

The Apostolic Constitutions (4th cent. AD) that took much of its material from the Didascalia, also followed its wholesome guidelines regarding monthly periods (except, perhaps, for its advocating abstention from sex during menstruation).

A letter from Pope Gregory I

Augustine of Canterbury wrote to Pope Gregory I in 601 AD, asking him many questions, to which he received a likewise lengthy reply. The letter was brought to him by Melitus, when he was sent on the second mission to England. Among the questions Augustine asked:

  • Was a pregnant woman to be baptized?
  • How long must a woman wait before entering a church after childbirth?
  • During the time of a woman’s menstruation may she enter a church and take Communion?

Gregory answers:

“Why should a pregnant woman not be baptized? It would be ridiculous to see any contradiction between the gift of fertility she has received from God and the gift of grace received at baptism. Regarding entrance into a church after childbirth, he says she is not to be prohibited. So also regarding the period of menstruation, she is likewise not to be prohibited from entering a church, for he adds: the natural flux that she suffers cannot be imputed to her as a fault, therefore it is right that she should not be deprived of the entrance into a church. He too refers to the Gospel story, and says: we know, moreover, that the woman suffering from flux, after she had touched humbly the fringe of Our Lord’s dress, was cured immediately. So if this woman may touch Our Lord’s dress, and it is told as a laudable thing, why should a menstruating woman not enter church? Nor is she to be prohibited from taking Communion at this time. If the woman out of veneration of the Sacrament does not go, she is to be praised, but if she does go to Communion she is not to be judged adversely. She has no sin. People see sin where there is none. We all eat when hungry, and without sin in doing so, even though it is through the sin of the first man that we are hungry. So women when menstruous have no sin; it is natural” (freely translated from) Gregory the Great, Epistle 64, Patres Latini 77, col. 1183; tenth interrogation, col. 1193.

John Wijngaards

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