By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Moving Faith Forward: Women, Religion and Necessary Heresies for our time

By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria, Senior Lecturer UP College of Law

The word heresy comes from the Greek, hairesis; haireomai, “choose,” which means either a choice of beliefs or a faction of dissident believers.”
[Labor Law Talk.Com]

Mary Magdalene is a central figure in the soon to be released film based on the Dan Brown Best seller, The Da Vinci Code. The movie (as did the book before it) has managed to open up debates over the accuracy of the book (DVC) and the inevitably the books of the Bible itself. Yet far from settling any issue of historical accuracy, debates and discussions about the Catholic faith can prove to be opportune in terms of moving issues of faith forward on the Church’s views of women.

To the average Filipino Catholic, it doubtless that “Magdalena,” manages to evoke both the image and reputation of sexual and moral depravity, as well as symbolizes (in Catholic terms), God’s “forgiveness.” She is also often visualized (in paintings, popular plays and in film) as one of the women who bathes and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, also in “repentance.”

Catholic teaching about Mary Magdalene revolves around her purported salvation from a life of prostitution. One of the most popularly told stories supposedly about her involves no less than Jesus Christ’s exorcism when he casts out seven devils from her.

Yet if you look it up in the bible, there is nothing in there that names Mary Magdalene as the same woman who was mentioned by Luke as “a sinner,” who bathes Jesus’ feet, the Mary who had seven demons cast out of her nor John’s “Mary of Bethany” as the same woman.

In fact, the only times Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the bible is as one of Christ’s ardent followers. She stood at the foot of the cross with Mary, mother of Christ, she was one of the women who kept vigil at Christ’s tomb and more importantly, she was the first to see the resurrected Christ.

Where did the characterization of Magdalene as prostitute begin and what is its significance in Catholic teaching?

Theologians all point to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in 591where he declared that Mary Magdalene was the sinner and the woman from whom seven demons were cast out. His position then became church teaching, although Orthodoxy or Protestantism did not adopt it when each later split from Catholicism.

Yet notable is that in 1969 the Catholic Church already officially separated Luke's sinful woman, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as part of a general revision of its missal.

To this date, the powerful imagery of Mary Magdalene the supposed “prostitute” and sinner continues to be used as the counterpoint to the other Mary, the virgin and mother of Christ. The myth firmly establishes and helps perpetuate the sexual double standard and the Catholic characterization of women on either side of the sexual standard (inexperience/experience) as either virgin or whore.

This either/or of sexuality constitutes the two sides of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and echoes the Augustinian conception of “procreative” sex (within marriage) as the only Church sanctioned sexual act.

Indeed, behind the powerful symbolism of “heavenly forgiveness,” in the depiction of Magdalene as a sinner or “a woman who fell from grace,” is the establishment of all manner of female sexuality as sin in itself.

Indeed, if we were to search the bible further for an alternate source of Christ’s position vis a vis such women considered within the class of “sinners,” we may recall that he is also said to have stood in defense of a woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned to death. His challenge was for anyone who was not a sinner to cast the first stone. In this particular situation (which is also currently disputed) it doesn’t seem that adultery is privileged over other “sins” at all. In the story, because of Christ’s challenge, nobody was in a position to cast the first stone!

Fast-forward to our present day and age and unfortunately the Magdalene myth (despite the 1969 Papal correction) persists. Not surprisingly, the sexual classification of women as either virgins or whores also permeates cultural practices, not the least of them, legal standards.

In Philippine penal law, prostitutes are women, marital infidelity is steeped in gendered assumptions: it is wholly unacceptable when committed by a woman (penalized as adultery) but otherwise forgivable if committed by the man (only concubinage is penalized, that is when there is a scandal or when the man sets up his mistress in a home or the conjugal home itself). As in rape and sexual abuse, the farther away the victim is from the virgin standard, the less likely she is believed and viewed as credible.

Yet apart from losing out on credibility, being denied protection all because of the failure to measure up to a standard of virginity, pervasive Catholic sexual double standards also continue to deny women full personhood in terms of rights over their procreative capacity, that is simply put, access to quality reproductive health care. Its time to move faith forward and embrace women’s human rights as a necessary heresy.


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