Man-Woman Relationship, a Good Thing in Need of Healing

Interview With Biblical Exegete Anne-Marie Pelletier

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PARIS, MARCH 8, 2005 (Zenit.org).- For International Women’s Day, one of Europe’s best-known biblical exegetes recommends the rediscovery of the complementary relationship between man and woman.

Anne-Marie Pelletier, in this interview with ZENIT, particularly suggests the reading of the 2004 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Man and Woman in the Church and the World,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A professor of biblical hermeneutics at the Cathedral School of Paris and the Sorbonne’s Practical School of Higher Studies, Pelletier has published books such as “Christianity and Women,” published by Cerf, and numerous articles on women in the Bible.

Q: Accusations of misogyny against Christianity have again become very topical as a result of some very successful publications. How do you think one should respond?

Pelletier: Without running away, but also not allowing oneself to become overly affected by everything that the media says.

Yes, it’s true, the question is very sensitive, and that is right, even if on occasions it undertakes rather doubtful avenues. For example, Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” is not the best help to reflect intelligently and calmly on the question.

In any case, it seems to me that it is essential to keep attention focused on this problem. How is it possible for Christians to be indifferent to women’s lives, which are often a history of injustice and violence?

How is it possible that the vision of woman, which is found at the beginning of our humanity, has nothing to do with our relationship with God? How can one think that reflection on the feminine condition, on the way that the man-woman relationship is lived, which is at the beginning of our humanity, has nothing to do with our relationship with God?

In a recent publication, I read amazing words: “The way one treats a woman corresponds to the way one lives with God.” It was a man, a young Dominican exegete, who wrote those words in a volume in which he scrutinizes wisely the Book of Samuel [see Philippe Lefebvre, “Les livres de Samuel et les récits de résurrection,” Paris, Cerf].

That we Christians can express or hear such an affirmation seems capital to me. And it is fortuitous that in our time such a thing can be done.

Q: You have taught the Bible, at the University of Nanterre, as “cultural memory” to Christian and non-Christians students and those of other religions. Is the Bible — Old and New Testament — misogynist?

Pelletier: It seems impossible to me to restrict to a few phrases the answer to such a question.

Whoever wishes to demonstrate that the Bible is misogynist will find quite a lot to justify his project, simply because God reveals himself in the very depth of our history, namely, in human realities that are heavy with misogyny.

Conversely and simultaneously, biblical history does not cease to evoke the presence of women in decisive points of history. It does not cease to show how women are in immediate proximity to God’s thoughts and plans. Of course, one can read the text without seeing or wishing to see it.

But the way in which our time has made the question of women topical should stimulate Christians to read the text better, to discover this feminine dimension of biblical history.

To return to the question posed, and without entering into details of what would entail enormous research, I would say that the first great merit of the biblical tradition in this domain concerns the diagnosis it offers on the man-woman relationship. Two affirmations are formulated, which are essential and must be endlessly held.

The first is that the relationship of man and woman is fundamental — foundational in our humanity. And, from the very beginning of Genesis, this reality of creation is designated as being “very good.” Therefore, there is a resolute confidence and optimism expressed which must never be forgotten.

The second affirmation is that, in the present scheme of our life, this very good reality is suffused with obscurity and exposed to tragedy. Hence, it is in need of healing.

And it is precisely part of the proclamation of the Gospel’s good news that Christ gives man and woman the capacity to address trials that alter their relationship. In him, the power of the Resurrection comes to touch and remake this relationship.

To accept this double truth allows us to consider the history of our societies with both realism and confidence. It also enables us to understand that, throughout our past 20 centuries of Christianity, Christians have not ceased to battle with this reality, in the same measure that we do not cease to accept the Word of God when it goes across, at times with difficulty, our resistances and obscurities.

So, it is absurd to pretend that the Church has censured the feminine according to the Machiavellian plan. On the other hand, it is also clear that it has often been difficult to enter into a truly divine intelligence of the difference of the sexes, of accepting it peacefully as a grace, in the way that we see Christ behave with the women in the Gospels.

But who would pretend that at the present time our hearts are totally transparent to God’s thoughts?

Q: You have left your mark on the reading of the Gospel by your reading of the Song of Songs. What can the reading of this book of the “first” Testament contribute to the truth of the biblical message on the masculine and the feminine in God’s plan?

Pelletier: I believe this book is altogether fundamental. This is not, however, an original conviction.

Throughout the Patristic age, the Middle Ages, and again later, it was held as such by commentators who are often counted among the great spiritual and mystical authors of the Christian tradition.

The excellence of the Song was then essentially linked to its capacity to express the wonder of the Covenant, as Israel already experienced it — the Song is a great text of the Jewish tradition — as experienced by baptized persons entering into the relationship of love of Christ and of the Church.

A Christian reading today St. Bernard or St. Teresa of Avila, commentators of this small biblical book, can recognize perfectly the grace of his baptism expressed by the Song’s dialogue, which is full of wonder and jubilation.

But one finds, in addition, that this modern reader is in a good position to give his reading a supplementary dimension. In fact, we know today how to receive the particular grace of this text, which is to be recognized in our experience of human love, the way that God chooses to reveal the love with which he loves us.

This human reality is as the object of a divine election that fills it at the same time with gravity and goodness, which is the privileged sign of God whose face Christ reveals to us.

Q: These 26 years of pontificate have contributed various documents on woman. Which of them seems to you to be the novelty in the reflection of woman’s place in the Church?

Pelletier: One of the characteristics of John Paul II’s pontificate is that he has inscribed, in the number of essential questions that the Church of this time must address, the identity and vocation of women. This is a great novelty which bears, unquestionably, the mark of the Holy Father’s personality.

The perception that he has of conjugal life, and first of all of the feminine, dates back to the very beginning of his priestly life. And he has not ceased to return with insistence to this reality about which, it must be admitted, many men in and beyond the Church are not very concerned.

It is the reason we have at our disposition today an important ensemble of texts, from “Mulieris Dignitatem” to the “Letter to Women,” in which John Paul II describes and analyzes with much finesse the singular note that women contribute to human life.

In those
same texts, the Holy Father states and repeats the importance of the role of women to humanize our world. The Pope, therefore, loves to show women as “teachers of man.”

The expression is strong. It is not totally new. This or that Father in the first centuries of Christianity formulated this thought. But John Paul II insists on it with a vigor that is altogether particular. Thus he invites us to move away from a certain fascination with values, often very masculine, which rule our world.

He invites us to identify other forms of effectiveness, those of which so many women give witness worldwide, who serve life, obscurely, but with infinite courage, including in situations where they are most threatened and disfigured.

In fact, he leads us to the heart of the Gospel and God’s thoughts: Is not the whole history of Revelation one of the gentleness of love, of the invisible force of love, which God opposes to humanity’s violence?

It is the same gentle love on which we Christians will meditate again in a few days, when following Christ in his passion and resurrection.

Q: Have you an idea to mark this International Women’s Day?

Pelletier: In line with what we were saying earlier, why not take a look at the text of the “Letter to Bishops” that appeared last summer and passed to a degree unnoticed. Its title is “The Collaboration of Man and Woman in the Church and the World.”

Commentaries were rare, as were the readers, no doubt. And among those that did appear, some did not think it was worth a second reading.

And yet, is it a trivial, inconsequential thought to invite, as the text does, to see in the idea of “for the other,” to which the lives of so many women give witness, not the mark of an inferiority but, on the contrary, a special proximity with the God who reveals himself as being “for us men and for our salvation”?

Or again, is it an inconsequential thought to affirm that “woman as ‘sign’ is more than ever central and fruitful” in the last part of the document, which is entitled “The Importance of Feminine Values in the Life of the Church”?

Whoever says the word “sign” implies the words “recognition” and “imitation” — a way, consequently, to invite men to allow themselves to be taught by women. One will agree that there is in such an aim something that resembles audacity.

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