A Pastoral Letter
Raising Our Voices:
In Opposition to Violence Against Women
Violence and abuse affect women every single day, in every country of the world, in every walk of life. Social scientists note that sexual discrimination, physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, sexual assault, rape, detention, isolation, control of money, shelter, time, food, etc., financial exploitation, trafficking and other forms of abuse and violence against women most often respect neither race, culture, wealth, status, religion nor age. Violence against women is rampant and is egregious. As such, as people of faith, we are called and required to raise our voices in opposition.
Addressing this important issue, however, requires a return to, and a very thoughtful reflection on, our biblical “beginning.” For our biblical “beginning” reveals a fundamental truth that looms as imperative, a critical truth that women, as well as men, possess an inherent dignity, derived not from acts or efforts, but, rather, from the very fact that women are made in the image and likeness of God.
We first learn of that inherent dignity in Genesis. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God, he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) Pope Paul VI supports and reverences this dignity. “Within Christianity, more than in any other religion, and since its very beginning, women have had a special dignity, of which the New Testament shows us many important aspects....” Address to Participants at the National Meeting of the Centra Italiano Femminile, Pope Paul VI, December 6, 1976, “Insegnamenti di Paolo VI,” XIV (1976), 1017.
Pope John Paul II continues Pope Paul VI’s theme, in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Letter Of The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, On The Dignity And Vocation Of Women On The Occasion Of The Marian Year, by noting that by reflecting on the accounts found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and by interpreting the passages in light of the truth about the image and likeness of God, “we can understand even more fully -what constitutes the personal character of the human being, thanks to which both man and woman are like God. For every individual is made in the image of God, insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature capable of knowing God and loving him. Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Of The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, On The Dignity And Vocation Of Women On The Occasion Of The Marian Year, August 15, 1988, #7.
This foundational principle of women’s inherent dignity, long recognized and embraced by the Catholic Church, places the sin of violence against women in its proper perspective. In his first message for the annual World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Pope Benedict XVI affirms John Paul II’s and the Church’s position by condemning the violence women face as they cross borders in search of work in another country. “In some cases there are women and girls who are destined to be exploited almost like slaves in their work, and not infrequently in the sex industry, too. Though I cannot here closely examine the analysis of the consequences of this aspect of migration, I make my own the condemnation voiced by John Paul II against “the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality” (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, 29 June 1995, n. 5). This outlines a whole programme of redemption and liberation from which Christians cannot withdraw.” Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for the 92nd World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2006, Migrations: A Sign of the Times.
As such, it becomes clear that violence against women constitutes a sin. Violence against women is never an accident. In domestic situations, violence against women takes the form of physical, psychological or emotional abuse. This includes rape, date rape, sexual assault, and other exploitation that reduces women to the role of sex objects. In many counties, violence against women is a weapon of war. Women are used to achieve the objectives of war. In some countries, modem day exploitation and slavery exists with regard to women in the form of human trafficking where many women leave home and family only to find themselves as objects of sexual slavery.
We know that around the world at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Within the United States, one out of every four American women will experience violence by an intimate partner sometime during her lifetime. One out of every six women will be raped during her lifetime. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner. The U.S. health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking and homicide committed by intimate partners exceed $5.8 billion each year. Of that amount, nearly $4.1 billion are for direct medical and mental health care services, and nearly $1.8 billion are for the indirect costs of lost productivity or wages.
We know that sexual violence in the U.S. has resulted in very harmful and lasting consequences for victims, families, and communities. Women who experience both sexual and physical abuse are significantly more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases. Long-term physical consequences such as chronic pelvic pain, premenstrual syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, gynecological and pregnancy complications have been observed. Long-term psychological consequences have been recorded including depression, attempted or completed suicide, alienation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and unhealthy diet-related behaviors. Strained relationships with the victim’s family, friends, and intimate partners emerges as a significant problem as victims often feel less emotional support from friends and family
To assert that violence against women is unacceptable is in harmony with our religious tradition and the Sacred Scriptures. Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:1-2)
Moreover, God stands in solidarity with the vulnerable, the oppressed and the powerless. Women who experience violence are at the margins of society and represent those most in need our spiritual and emotional support. They deserve our care, compassion and, mostly, our voice. In the Book of Exodus, God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable is evident: “If you ever wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear them cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.” (Ex. 22:20-23) Additionally, as Pope Benedict XVI asserted, “The Church sees this entire world of suffering and violence through the eyes of Jesus, who was moved with pity at the sight of the crowds wandering as sheep without a shepherd (cf. Mt 9: 36). Hope, courage, love and ‘creativity’ in charity (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennia Ineunte. n. 50) must inspire the necessary human and Christian efforts made to help these brothers and sisters in their suffering.” Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for the 92nd World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2006, Migrations: A Sign of the Times.
Nor can we hide behind the lines of Ephesians 5:21-33, which some have used to defend the subjugation of women, to support any kind of exploitation of women in marital relationships. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II specifically addresses the text. The admonishment that husbands should love their wives and that wives should be subject to their husbands, John Paul II asserts, is not contradictory, for verse 21 calls for a mutual subjection. He explains, “[t]he text is addressed to the spouses as real women and men.
It reminds them of the ‘ethos’ of spousal love which goes back to the divine institution of marriage from the ‘beginning.’ Corresponding to the truth of this institution is the exhortation: ‘Husbands, love your wives,’ love them because of that special and unique bond whereby in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh’ (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31).” Even more importantly, John Paul II sees the letter to then Ephesians as an important call to conversion for all. He states, “However, 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, behavior 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. Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Letter Of The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, On The Dignity And Vocation Of Women On The Occasion Of The Marian Year, August 15, 1988, #24.
Condemnation of violence against women must take its form and substance from a theological perspective, one that, first and foremost, affirms that women possess an inherent dignity based on the image and likeness of God. From that dignity flows recognition that violence against women is a sin, one which must be condemned, as must the culture and attitudes that encourage any exploitation of sexuality. The root cause of the problem lies in the ever-present inequality of and discrimination against women that exists in the world today. A basic refusal to see women as inherently equal with men, as mandated by our religious tradition, creates the environment for violence against women to flourish. As a Church and as a culture, we must take the elimination of violence against women seriously, working to ensure that women be treated with respect and protected against any kind of sexual discrimination, rape, sexual assault, enforced prostitution, trafficking, or any other forms of violence or sexual exploitation. We cannot, and must not, remain silent any longer. Accordingly, I call on all Catholics and people of faith to raise their voices, renouncing all forms of violence against women and, further, to commit to teach their children to reject this violence in all its forms. To ignore the call mandated by our Church tradition and the Sacred Scriptures, or to assert otherwise, diminishes God’s love, care and compassion for some of the most vulnerable of out times.
February 6, 2006
Most Reverend Eusebius J. Beltran
Archbishop of Oklahoma City