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mutual submission Roman Catholic


With Easter happening last weekend and the release of the disappointing movie about her, Mary Magdalene has been widely discussed lately. One piece of information that has popped up in several conversations is that, in an official statement made in June 2016, Pope Francis referred to Mary Magdalene as the “apostle of the apostles”. However, Pope Frances wasn’t the first. Pope John Paul II had previously referred to Mary Magdalene with this title or description.

In his apostolic letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem (“Dignity of Women”), dated the 15th of August 1988, John Paul II made many positive statements about women, including Mary Magdalene, that deserve to be more widely known. And I want to share some of them here. I do realise that unless one is a Roman Catholic, these words are not considered as binding or authoritative, but they are mostly based on a careful examination of the Scriptures that we all cherish.

I encourage you to read the following statements in context here, as I have provided just short sections from what is not a short document, and I have not included passages I disagree with.[1] (I have retained the frequent italics and quotation marks used in the Vatican document.)

“Suitable Helper” (Genesis 2)

This is part of what the pontiff said about the creation of woman in Genesis 2 as “helper”.

. . . man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist “side by side” or “together”, but they are also called to exist mutually “one for the other”. This also explains the meaning of the “help” spoken of in Genesis 2:18-25: “I will make him a helper fit for him”. The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must “help” the man—and in his turn he must help her —first of all by the very fact of their “being human persons”. In a certain sense this enables man and woman to discover their humanity ever anew and to confirm its whole meaning. We can easily understand that, on this fundamental level, it is a question of a “help” on the part of both, and at the same time a mutual “help”. To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion. (Section 7)

According to John Paul II, helping is not something especially required of the woman. Rather, helping should be mutual and a normal part of human relationships.

“He will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b)

This is part of what the pontiff said about Genesis 3:16b (“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you”).

[In these words] we discover a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this [pre-fall] “unity of the two” . . . This “domination” indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the “unity of the two”: and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman, whereas only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic “communio personarum”. While the violation of this equality, which is both a gift and a right deriving from God the Creator, involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man. (Section 10)

The consequences of sin, which God mentions in Genesis 3:16b, are detrimental. The domination of woman disadvantages her and discriminates against her, and it diminishes the man.

Submission in Marriage (Ephesians 5:22–33)

This is part of what the pontiff said about Ephesians 5:22–33 and the verses, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife . . .”

The author [of Ephesians] knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph. 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual. (Section 24)

And this:

. . . the awareness that in marriage there is mutual “subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ”, and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviour and customs. This is a call which from that time onwards, does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew. Saint Paul not only wrote: “In Christ Jesus . . . there is no more man or woman”, but also wrote: “There is no more slave or freeman”. Yet how many generations were needed for such a principle to be realized in the history of humanity through the abolition of slavery! And what is one to say of the many forms of slavery to which individuals and peoples are subjected, which have not yet disappeared from history? But the challenge presented by the “ethos” of the Redemption is clear and definitive. (Section 24)

According to John Paul II, submission is to be mutual in marriage and not one-sided, and help is to be mutual and reciprocal. It is sin that breaks the mutual and equal relationship between man and woman. (Section 9). This stance is much more egalitarian in terms of marriage than that of many evangelicals.

Still, the pontiff does not go far enough in terms of ministry. The Roman Catholic Church does not acknowledge the vocation of women “in its fullness” (cf. section 1). Rather, it seems that, as another pontiff suggested, “not all [of women’s] potentialities have yet been made clear.” (See section 1) Sadly, the unwarranted exclusion of women in some ministerial vocations and the unused, hidden potential of women remain issues in many churches. As in family life, we need both men and women ministering side by side in church life. So the challenge remains. We still have a way to go for women to be given their full dignity in the church.

Read Mulieris Dignitatem here.
John Paul II’s 1995 letter, Women: Teachers of Peace is also interesting and can be read here.


[1] There are a few concepts and emphases that I disagree with in Mulieris Dignitatem. For example, I disagree with the idea that virginity and motherhood are two particular dimensions of the fulfilment of the female personality. Men can be virgins and they might parent in a way that is similar to mothers, even if they cannot biologically give birth and nurse children. And I strongly disagree that women are incapable of representing our Lord Jesus.

One section I don’t disagree with is section 4 on the Theotokos (Mary as the “mother of God”), a concept that is sometimes misunderstood by Protestants. It is beautifully explained by the pontiff in Mulieris Dignitatem.

Section 8, on the anthropological language used in expressing characteristics of God, is also a good read and it includes this line: “We find in [certain biblical] passages an indirect confirmation of the truth that both man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. If there is a likeness between Creator and creatures, it is understandable that the Bible would refer to God using expressions that attribute to him both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities.” Pope John Paul II’s repeatedly emphasises that men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God and that they are equal.

© Margaret Mowczko 2018
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Explore more

Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
Is it only men who can represent Jesus?
Is it he, she, they or we who crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15)?
All my articles on woman as “helper” are here.
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22–33 are here.

6 thoughts on “John Paul II on Mutual Submission in Marriage

  1. this.

    Hubby and I have recently connected with a Catholic Couple who share a non-hierarchical complementarian view of marriage. Such a gift from God to us given the small town we live in is filled with Evangelical hierarchical complimentarians, making fellowship with like-minded people difficult.

    1. The best wedding sermon I’ve ever heard was at the Catholic service for my niece’s wedding a few years ago. I was so encouraged and inspired.

  2. Does mutual subjection mean that as the man is laying down his life for the wife the woman also lays down her life for her husband?

    1. Hi Anthony,

      Bearing in mind the pontiff’s words above, the short answer is “yes.”

      Here is a longer answer.

      Jesus’s love, which motivated him to give himself up for the sake of his beloved church, can be seen as an example of submission but it is more clearly an expression of love.

      Ephesians 5:25 is addressed to husbands, but it repeats a similar idea stated previously in Ephesians 5:1-2 where Paul encourages his audience (men and women, husbands and wives) to follow Jesus’s example and to give themselves up and to love sacrificially. We all are to love as Jesus loved, and that means being selfless (e.g., Phil. 2:3-8).

      Compare the almost identical language used in Ephesians 5:2 and in Ephesians 5:25:

      “. . . walk in love (ἐν ἀγάπῃ),
      just as Christ also loved (καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν) us
      and gave Himself up for (καὶ παρέδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπέρ) us . . .” (Eph. 5:2).

      “Husbands, love (ἀγαπᾶτε) your wives,
      just as Christ also loved (καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν) the church
      and gave Himself up for (καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπέρ) her . . .” (Eph. 5:25).

      I’ve written more about this here.

      Let me add these words from Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel.
      “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).

      The vast majority of us will not be required to literally lay down our lives (i.e. die), but we are required to do this metaphorically, especially for those dearest to us.

      Christian marriage is a relationship of love that is expressed through selfless service and mutual submission, or at least it should be.

  3. Thanks for the reminder about Saint Pope John Paul II modification of canon laws on household codes. I agree one day we shall see what women apostles and deacons can do for the church again. To me after two years of anxiety, doubt about whether I’m interpreting Scripture/Tradition correctly, in general concern about this issue I think it it’s quite clear that we can represent Jesus too after all why would God mark all those women like St. Rita of Cascia with the stigmata if women couldn’t fully represent Christ in his sacrifice? Why would he allow a woman Deborah to judge the people of Israel if he wasn’t going to allow a woman to judge his people in the New Testament?

    1. I appreciate the anxiety and doubts you’ve been experiencing. It’s troubling when one’s own observation of scripture, as well as common sense, goes against centuries of tradition. It is reassuring to know that there have always been a few astute people who recognised that women were leaders in Israel and in some first-century churches. More and more people today are recognising this fact about women leaders and ministers.

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