The Good Wife
Catholic author explores the controversy of St. Paul’s ‘subordinate’ clause
Call her “The Wife Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” for devoting a whole chapter in her new book to supporting St. Paul’s view: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22). Of course, author Marge Fenelon takes the chapter to explain the passage in fuller context and real-life application.
Yet there is much more to recommend in the just-released Strengthening Your Family: A Catholic Approach to Holiness (Our Sunday Visitor). The book is filled with helpful insights and hints, as well as humorous homespun stories that will appeal to both men and women.
Fenelon and her husband, Mark, have been married for nearly 30 years and live in Cudahy, Wisconsin. They have four children, ages 26 to 15.
She spoke with Fathers for Good about the controversial topics surrounding husband and wife.
Fathers for Good: In your book you talk about a hairdresser who complained loudly about her husband. Why did this offend you and what did you do?
Marge Fenelon: First of all, I listened for far longer than I should have! Her chatter began innocently enough, but then quickly spiraled into a full-fledged rant. I took a deep breath, and told her, “You know, when I have difficulty with my husband, I go directly to him and talk about it because it’s nobody else’s business.” Her jaw dropped. “So, you want those bangs a little shorter this time?” she asked. That was the end of her rant, and I believe she got my point.
This offended me for a number of reasons. Marriage isn’t a contract or a ceremony; it’s a private, life-long covenantal relationship. When we’re in covenant with one another, we do all we can to uplift, support, protect, and enrich the other. Complaining about our spouses in public not only embarrasses them (breaking the Fifth Commandment), but also rots that covenantal relationship from the inside out. There’s a rule of thumb in the public relations field that says if you say it often enough, they’ll start to believe it. That’s true in marriage. If we say negative things about our spouses often enough to others, they’ll start to believe it and so will we.
FFG: Is refraining from such gossip part of the “love and cherish” we promise?
Fenelon: Yes. On our wedding day, we made a solemn promise to do all that we can to help our spouse become the man or woman God had in mind for him or her to be, and to work for his or her eternal salvation as well as our own. Often when Mark and I give presentations to younger married couples, we’ll sum up marriage with this statement: “Your job is to get your spouse to heaven.” If you take this task very seriously, all that you do and say should and will contribute to the building up of your spouse, and not to the tearing down.
FFG: Your chapter “Who’s in Charge” could raise a few feminist attacks. What is your point?
Fenelon: In this chapter, I’m making a point on many levels. The Church teaches that husbands and wives are equal in dignity, but not equal in function or authority; we tend to forget that. It amazes me that someone can look at a major corporation and say, “Well, of course there’s a CEO! There has to be or the company will fall apart!” It’s no different with the family. There has to be a CEO – aka, Dad – or the family will fall apart. Someone has to make the final decision and subsequently bear the responsibility for that decision. Why should it be the husband and not the wife? Because of the different, sacred, and ever-so-amazing differences in the natures of man and woman. By his nature, man is best suited to be the head of the family. By her nature, woman is best suited to be the heart of the family. Both are equally necessary, both are equally beneficial to the well-being of the entire family and of each member. Neither can function well without the other.
Does that mean he gets to be a selfish tyrant? Absolutely not! Going back to the CEO analogy, just think of the consequences to a corporation when the top dog is steeped in self-interest and does as he pleases, or when he imposes impossible expectations and limitations on the employees. Compare that to a company whose CEO does all he can for the benefit of all personnel. Additionally, in order to do his job well, the CEO has to listen to his employees, respect their needs and opinions, consider their greater good, and make decisions based upon those factors weighed against the overall effect a decision might have on the corporation as an entity. This is a simplified example, but I’m sure you can draw the parallel to the family.
FFG: What’s your advice to wives regarding the words from St. Paul in Ephesians 5 about “respect” or “obey”?
Fenelon: These words are controversial only because we view them as one-sided. Yes, wives should respect and obey their husbands, but husbands should respect and obey their wives. Obedience comes in many forms. We can obey a direct command, a rule, or a firm decision, but we also obey the voice of God within ourselves and within our spouses.
We obey our husbands as helpmates, supplying them with the information, intuition, and perceptions that only women can have and thus guiding them in their decision making and encouraging them to be holy, courageous and just Christian men. They obey us by taking into account our observations, needs, and preferences, appreciating our feminine genius, and by helping us to be holy, pure, and Spirit-inspired Christian women.
When we consider the reading from Ephesians 5, we often stop at the part that advises wives to be subject to their husbands without considering the rest of the passage:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
“Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:25-30).
If we take in the entire passage, and realize its full meaning, the words “respect” and “obey” lose their sting and instead become terms of endearment. Who could ever resent the authority of someone who would give his life for you?
Strengthening Your Family: A Catholic Approach to Holiness is available from Our Sunday Visitor.