Women’s Great Defender

Interview With Early Church History Scholar

By Miriam Díez i Bosch

MADRID, Spain, APRIL 14, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The Church has defended the dignity of woman ever since Christ founded it, affirmed a scholar on the role of women in early Christianity.

Father Fernando Rivas Rebaque, from the Diocese of Getafe in Spain, spoke with ZENIT about why women’s roles in early Christianity are little-known and the challenge the Church faces regarding the promotion of women today.

Father Rivas specifies three types of female protagonist roles within the Church in his book “Desterradas hijas de Eva. Protagonismo y marginación de la mujer en el cristianismo primitivo” (Banished Daughters of Eve: The Protagonist Roles and Marginalization of Women in Early Christianity).

Q: Perpetua, Felicity, Blandine, Melanie the Younger — why do so few people remember the roles of these women as protagonists in the Church?

Father Rivas: Very few people remember these women of the early Church because history, in general, and that of the Church, in particular, focuses preferentially on the great events that “changed” history — wars, reigns, leaders — and tends to forget daily life, the events that make up the existence of every day.

This means, concretely, that the history of the Church tends to be the history of Popes, bishops, leaders, saints and theologians who have “marked” the life of the Church, leaving forgotten or underappreciated the other people, laypeople in the first place, more so if they are women, due to their reduced possibilities of social influence.

Only a few women who exhibited particularly outstanding behavior in one field or another passed into the memory of history.

Q: In what spheres did feminine protagonists stand out in the early Church?

Father Rivas: Women’s protagonist roles in the early Church varied according to historical times and places.

Summarizing them, it may be said that there are three types of protagonist roles common to all periods and regions: that of ascetics, expressed mainly in virginity and monasticism, that of martyrdom, and that concerning the role of wealthy benefactors of the community, very highly appreciated in the Church.

Furthermore, a type of protagonist role that developed considerably in the Eastern world is that of deaconesses, which did not have a counterpart in the Western world.

Q: Are women gaining visibility in ecclesial spheres?

Father Rivas: To begin with, one would have to distinguish between visibility, protagonist roles, authority and power.

Christian women are present and visible in everyday ecclesial spheres — celebrations, groups, activities. What’s more, I would say that, in these cases, they are not only a majority but, in some cases, practically the only visible component.

On the other hand, in the measure that we go climbing the ladder of directors, the presence and protagonist roles of the woman remain practically reduced to a few ecclesial spheres — despite the fact that they could enter into posts that are not united to ministerial [roles] — to the point of practically disappearing in ecclesial cupolas.

This situation is far more worrying because it grows increasingly distant from what is occurring in the social field, where women’s visibility, presence, protagonist roles and power are daily on the rise.

Q: However, the Holy Father has recently denounced macho attitudes and the vulnerability of many women who suffer just for the fact of being women. What concrete action is the Church undertaking to counteract this?

Father Rivas: The Church has struggled for women’s dignity ever since its origin because it has united salvation to a personal and nontransferable option made by each human being in relation to God and neighbor.

In this way, it broke away from other religious patterns in which the ethnic-racial, national, class, gender, or cultural factor was important, and has forced a sphere of fundamental equality between men and women.

Moreover, the Church shows a marked preference or option for the poor, which in many cases enables it to come in contact with the world of women, many of whom are victims of this condition; this has given rise to a number of institutions, resources and measures in favor of people in need, among which women have been and are a majority.

The Church has even empowered women’s participation in many spheres of protagonist roles — ascetism, education, associations, relationships — in which women have been able to show the best of themselves, without restricting themselves to the domestic sphere.

This does not change the fact that in every case, the dominant culture, marked in great measure by patriarchal tints, has colored many of her expressions.

More specifically, and within the spheres of my everyday life, which are the parish of a working neighborhood and the university, the Church has enabled many women to attain levels of knowledge, relationships, activities, and protagonist roles higher than those of the majority of institutions they find around them.

[It] serves as a platform for the great majority of women who have come into contact with the parish or the university, [enabling] their personal development and their progress as believers.

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