My friend Kevin Hargaden, who’s training to be an Irish Presbyterian pastor by attending a Catholic seminary (only in Ireland!), is writing a fine series of five blog posts related to abortion and Christian faith. His country will possibly (likely?) soon join most of the West in permitting legal abortion. Knowing next to nothing about Irish politics and not wanting to bother with a Google search, I gather that his opinion is in the minority—or isn’t the cool one, regardless.
I heartily recommend these posts: part 1, part 2, and part 3, so far. Today he writes about the slander that prohibiting abortion in Ireland is motivated by Church-based misogyny. Of this, he says a few things that relate to our discussions over the past couple of weeks concerning the place of women in church. The following is one long excerpt—but check out his blog, too. It rules! (He’ll be disappointed by how little blog traffic my endorsement elicits!)
Here’s the thing that people might not know and if they did know it, they’d be a whole lot slower to suggest that Christianity is inherently anti-woman. Let us imagine for a moment that Jesus isn’t actually the second person of the Trinity, which is surely not a hard thing to imagine. In that world, a purely non-theistic explanation for why Christianity emerged as top-dawg among all the strange apocalyptic Judaisms of the 2nd Temple era would have to rest in a large part on how it honoured women.
In a world where all but the wealthiest women were socially marginalised, the church was a place where women led alongside men. Men preached. So did women. Men served as deacons. So did women. Men prophesied. So did women. Men were apostles. So were women. If Christianity is misogynistic today, then it is betraying its roots. The response is not to decry the supposedly inevitable women-hating nature of the church but to call Christians to the feminism that is intrinsic to their religion.
In a culture where young girls were often married off before adolescence, Christian women came of age before entering into matrimony. In a culture that made very little of divorce, Christians who were divorced could not become elders. When in 1 Peter, the apostle talks of women as the weaker sex, this is the context of his speech. He is describing the social norm, not prescribing a natural form. by opposing divorce, Christians explicitly countered the culture that abandoned women to social isolation, economic poverty and early death.
It is appropriate that we end by pointing out that early Christian regard for children quite literally meant the difference between life and death for women. Unwanted children were simply exposed and girls were disproportionately victims of this. There were 131 men for every 100 women in Rome. Another aspect of the extraordinary misogyny of Rome was the high death-rate during abortions, which were not taboo. In an age before germ-theory, even our contemporary nightmare scenarios of back-alley terminations can’t come close to how dangerous this culture was for women. Christians did not have abortions. Christian fathers and husbands did not demand it. The early church were keen readers of Plato and Aristotle but they rejected the Greek counsel to abort unwanted pregnancies. The most significant early church document that didn’t make the cut for the New Testament, the Didache, declares that “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”
A final reflection on how strange this anti-clericalism is: the heart of Irish Catholic practice (arguably) is devotion to Mary. Remember that I’m training to be a Presbyterian minister so I don’t go in for that lark at all. It is possible that a religious culture could give such a significant role to a woman and yet be inherently misogynistic. But you’d have to have a rational explanation that would justify that assertion.