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Women & the Church: Part 2

What seeds did Martin Luther plant for wider acceptance of women?
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In our last article, we reported on a few of the developments that led to the Catholic Church deciding to make women “second class citizens.” In this and future installments, we'll be revealing how Martin Luther, a Catholic priest (but also one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation), planted the seeds for a different, more enlightened understanding of the female gender – and how the Catholic rule mandating unmarried, celibate priests impacted the greater Christian church.

Luther's thinking actually evolved from a rather neutral ground in 1520 (“I will advise neither for nor against marrying or remaining single,”) to later statements wholeheartedly in support of marriage (following his own wedding with Catherine von Bora).

Historian Heiko Oberman tells us that Luther used his own translation of Genesis for his rationale of viewing women as helpful domestic partners: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” But it would be short-sighted to assume that utilitarian motives were the only factors driving Luther’s later attack on celibacy. In fact, deeper theological issues were at stake here.

In 1521, Luther shed some light on the history of how the Catholic Church came to command that all priests should be celibate: Luther explained, “For some years priests and bishops had lived as celibates of their own volition; then certain persons began to try to turn this example into a commandment and thereafter to compel celibacy as a matter of conscience. By this time faith and the gospel had already grown weak to this extent, even in this holy synod, and the traditions of men were growing strong. But a certain Paphnutius resisted the whole council and prevented any legislation on the matter of celibacy. It remained for the Roman Antichrist [the Pope] to bring this idolatory to pass. And so, while in former times the monks were celibates and lived in poverty and obedience of their own free will, their successors eventually turned their voluntary and evangelical example into a compulsory vow.”

On the surface it seemed that the original reason for celibacy was to allow the clergy to devote more time to the church. But, as Luther states in his work On Marriage Matters, “If this [more opportunity for God’s word and prayer, fewer household and childcare concerns] is not what is sought in chastity, but a holy estate [a supposed higher righteous-ness], or if one would like to be free of a betrothed spouse — both of these are to be repudiated and are nothing more than seeking one’s own willfulness and advantage.”

So, in the case of “higher righteousness,” it appears that Luther was referring to the common belief that people are ultimately “saved” through their own good works on earth. And, in the case of escape from marital obligations, that's nothing more than succumbing to ordinary human weakness.

Beyond the matter of misdirected intentions, however, there was also the issue of corruption in the church. In Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and The Bishops Falsely So Called, Luther states that the price of monastic celibacy was often the seeking of other outlets for sexual gratification, that is, prostitution. While this practice was not officially condoned by the Vatican, it did bring income to the hierarchy, since a bishop typically received one guilder a year from a priest, if the priest wished to keep a woman for the purpose of companionship. So it's logical to conclude that this was a key reason why the Catholic hierarchy was so reluctant to disturb the status quo, and interrupt this continuing source of profit.

Another sore spot for Luther was the existence of man-made, papal ordinances that apparently contradicted the original teachings of scripture. For example, Luther refers to passages from Titus and Timothy which showed that the early church fathers encouraged the appointment of married clergy, who presumably were more stable and respectable. If this was once acceptable, Luther argues, why did the Catholic leadership change its mind? In his work, To The Christian Nobility..., Luther asserts that “Christ has set us free from all man-made laws, especially when they are opposed to God and the salvation of souls, as St. Paul teaches in Galatians and Corinthians.”

In his other writings, Luther also mentions the example of other church fathers who were themselves married. Of course, to carry this thinking a step further, Luther himself ultimately decided to get married, living out his beliefs by making his own life an example. We'll talk more about that in Part 3 of this series. Stay tuned...

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