Church Fathers, Independent Virgins // Review

Article excerpt

Sex is always a hot topic, no more so than today with debates raging in most ecclesiastical circles around clerical celibacy, lesbians and gays in church and in the clergy, women priests, married priests and the ever-growing concern around sexual abuse and the clergy. Too often these discussions are historical, or at best addressed with the ever popular "we've always done it this way" attitude. When historical issues are raised, especially in feminist circles, it is usually a condemnation of the misogyny and sexophobia of the early Christian writers and leaders. Joyce Salisbury has entered the discussion at an important time and her contribution to the debate is helpful. By addressing the early Christian attitude toward sexuality and gender roles, Salisbury raises questions regarding the traditional interpretations and suggests her own reading of the issues and how they might affect our discussions today.

Salisbury has chosen to focus on the debates surrounding virginity and celibacy in the first through fourth centuries, delineating three approaches: that of the early church fathers, whom she sees as dualistic in their approach; Augustine, who rejects this dualism and is more favourable toward sex than the early fathers but still upholds traditional gender roles; and the women ascetics of the period, who embrace virginity not as a rejection of sex but as a way to individual freedom from societal and gender roles, particularly those associated with marriage. Her arguments are based on her reading of the primary documents and include a detailed review of seven of women saints found in a tenth century manuscript from the Spanish Escorial monastic library.

Her thesis is an interesting one which fits well into the ongoing debate among religious feminists as to whether Christianity is or was liberating for women. However, curiously Salisbury does not seem aware of the current issues in the debate. She seems to assume that Christianity was liberating for women in the Roman Empire and that the patriarchal and repressive aspects of early Christianity for women are the result of secular hierarchical baggage associated with the empire, a view with which many feminist church historians would take issue. When she focuses on her main topic, that of the relation between asceticism, sexuality and women, she is in the midst of yet another ongoing debate. The question of whether asceticism was liberating for women has been around since the 1970s, the most relevant work having been done by Rosemary Radford Ruether in an essay in her book, Religion and Sexism, on Virginal Feminism. While Salisbury cites this book in her bibliography she never refers directly to it or to Ruether's analysis and conclusions, which at the least offer an additional view with which to work. …


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