Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

Congenital weakness, it was alleged, characterizes woman's inferior and flawed nature. Biblical sanction for this sexist theory comes from I Peter 3:7. After instructing wives to be submissive31 to their husbands, the writer reminds husbands to be considerate of their wives since they are the "weaker vessel." The use of the word "vessel" dehumanizes women, turning them into objects at the mercy of men. Likewise. whenever theologians and hymnographers designated women as "rib", they devalued her and reduced her to a piece of anatomy.

Appearing over and over in patristic writing and in Byzantine hymnography, the idea of "female weakness" never vanished from Orthodox theology of woman. Relying on the creation story in Genesis 2, Clement of Alexandria, the great Christian philosopher and teacher of the second century, explained "female weakness" and male strength in this way. By removing the rib from Adam to create Eve God purged males of all weakness forever (PG 8: 581A-B).32 Therefore all males are whole, perfect and strong, all females fractured, derivative, imperfect and weak. Sixteen hundred years after Clement, St. Nikodemos Hagioreites contrasted "weak woman" with "strong man" (I, 289).

In great detail the fathers spelled out, often in picturesque language, the many and varied weaknesses of "female nature." Female failings are not only physical. Women also suffer from moral, spiritual and intellectual defects. Commenting on John 20:13-14, Mary Magdalene's failure to recognize the Risen Lord at once, St. Cyril of Alexandria,33 fellow townsman of Hypatia, the brilliant woman philosopher and mathematician, declared that the "whole species of females is somewhat slow of understanding" (PG 74. 689B, 692C-D). Other theologians agreed with this assessment. St. John Chrysostom shared Cyril's low opinion of women's mental capacity. He therefore deemed it wise and necessary for women to be restricted to unimportant, undemanding domestic roles (PG 62. 500). The house was the appropriate sphere for the sex endowed with limited mental capabilities. It is worth noting that the fathers, so far as I know, did not compose paeans to the glories of motherhood and domesticity. In their view. based on Genesis 3:16, God punished Eve for her transgression by enslaving her to her husband and condemning her to the pains of childbirth. They did not view marriage and motherhood as ministries ordained by God for women.

Convinced that only males participate in the divine image, the golden tongued patriarch of Constantinople, whose most loyal friends were women, projected on to the "second sex" every conceivable human weakness.34 The female sex, St. John Chrysostom eloquently declared, is emotional, fickle, superficial, garrulous and servile in temperament (PG 47. 510-511; 59. 346; 61.316; 62. 548). Other fathers contributed details to this basic misogynist portrait of women. St. Epiphanios of Cyprus35 attributed to women instability, weakmindedness, frenzy and vanity (PG 42. 740D, 745B). St. Gregory the Theologian believed that women are "naturally" ostentatious and self-indulgent (PG 35, 800).

Lest we think that such opinions and caricatures of women belong to the remote past, let us consider these lines written by a twentieth-century Russian Orthodox priest and theologian. Women, he said, are guilty of "inadequate self-control, irresponsibility, passion, blind judgments. Scarcely any woman is free of the latter; she is always the slave of her passions, of her dislikes, of her desires."36 Such sexist stereotypes and reductionist images of women still exist, descending directly from Christendom's most influential and prestigious church fathers.

From Christendom's most celebrated preacher and pulpit comes this verdict on woman's fatally flawed weak nature. In a baptismal catechesis St. John Chrysostom applauds St. Paul, "the teacher of the oikoumene," who "knew very well the stupidity of female nature."37 Given this monolithic, negative and pejorative view of women, it is easy to understand the fathers' opposition to the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood. Handicapped by moral, spiritual and intellectual weakness, women were judged unfit for sacramental roles. To their credit, however, the fathers did not indulge in evasive talk about "complementarity" and about charismata of femininity and masculinity as reasons for not admitting women to the priesthood.

The Church fathers further justified women's second-class status, their subordination to men and their exclusion from priestly roles on the premise that women are first in the order of sin. The same primitive creation story that doomed women to an inferior "female nature" placed on them a second burden, primacy in sinfulness.38 In Orthodoxy's androcentric theology woman and sin became synonyms. Theologians, past and present,39 follow the author of I Timothy 2:14, who exonerated Adam and blamed only Eve for the introduction of sin into the world: "for it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin." In agreement with this prejudiced interpretation of the Fall the fathers named Eve the "mother" and "author" of sin, neglecting to assign paternity to Adam. Ever since that unhappy day long ago in Eden, women have been scapegoated by male-dominated church and society, saddled with sole responsibility for sin and all the evils that plague the human condition. Adam was the first, but not the last, to put the blame on Eve.