Fr Billy Swan
One of the darkest sides of this lockdown and the ones before, is the acute rise in cases of domestic violence. The vast majority of these cases are violence against women. In England this week, the issue received urgent attention after the murder of Sarah Everard, a young woman from London. Her death led to a protest and outcry for more action to be taken to combat violence against women and to protect their safety. Many of the measures than have been proposed by the British government include better street lighting, security, and social support. All that is good. But the problem lies in deeper roots that are of a moral and spiritual in nature. Surely it has to do with how we have drifted from a culture of respect for every human being’s name, person and property and towards attitudes and actions against women that are unacceptable and sinful. Here we explore what the Gospel teaches and what light the teaching of the Church sheds on this terrible problem.
The Gospel proclaims the equal dignity of men and women and at the same time denounces any form of violence or the violation of that dignity and their rights. Man and woman were created by God in his image and likeness and both were created for the other. The existence of one was complementary to the other and both were united in the glory of God. According to the Bible, after the sin of Adam and Eve there was a disruption to this original harmony with Adam alienated from Eve after both blamed each other for eating the fruit of the tree. God pronounced to Eve that one of the consequences of her sin would be that "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16). With this pronouncement, there is a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this "unity of the two" which God originally intended for them. As St John Paul II points out in his encyclical on the dignity of women: ‘But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of "being a sincere gift" and therefore living "for" the other: "he shall rule over you". 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. 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’ (Mulieris Dignitatem, 10).
An extreme form of this domination of women by men is when women become victims of violence. Here is a serious manifestation of the distorted relationship between man and woman where the harmony between them is corrupted and destroyed. God is not indifferent to this suffering. The blood of victims of violence cry out to God from the earth as did that of Abel who was killed in a jealous rage by his brother Cain. In his ministry, Jesus always treated women with the greatest respect, uplifted their dignity and stood down a self-righteous mob who would have stoned a woman caught in adultery (cf. John 8:1-11).
Critics of the Bible often target St Paul for his famous words: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord…as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything’ (Ephesians 5:22-24). Yet this submission of wives to their husbands is not an arbitrary submission to his whimsical power. Rather it is the submission of the Church in obedience to Christ her bridegroom who gave his life for her in truth and loving service. In fact, the work of Jesus’ redemption was to undo the damage caused by sin and its consequences. The work of Jesus was and continues to be one of reconciliation and healing of the consequences of original sin which included the domination of women by men.
In continuity with Biblical teaching, the Church stands athwart against any abuse of power against others for selfish advantage and calls all her members to be disposed and act towards others in a spirit of loving service and willing the good of the other. Our relationships are salted by the Holy Spirit which moves them away from sinful attitudes of domination and towards relationships of service, fidelity and mutual respect. Here is the disposition of respect that is the antidote to domination of women and any form of violence against them.
Women are particularly prone to sexual violence as evidence shows. The argument was put forward in the 1960’s that women needed contraception to protect themselves from expressions of this sexual violence. However, there is evidence that the promotion of a widespread contraception culture in the West since that time has put women at greater risk. In 1968, St Paul VI warned that a contraceptive culture would lead to a decreased respect for women, even within marriage. In Humane Vitae, he wrote:
‘Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection’ (Para. 17).
Over fifty years later, these prophetic words have been fulfilled in the increased violence against women as seen with the ‘#MeToo’ campaign of recent years and the tsunami of women who have come forward to tell their stories of abuse and control – modern day manifestations of original sin and its symptom of domination.
When it comes to domestic abuse, recent Church documents and statements have denounced abuse as a sin and have advised the abused partner to seek help and leave the abusive situation if at all possible. In The Joy of Love published in 2016 by Pope Francis, following the 2014 and 2015 synods of Bishops on the Family, he repeatedly stresses the wrongfulness of domestic abuse and the need for a sensitive and informed pastoral support for all those affected. There he writes: ‘The verbal, physical and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union’ (Para. 54); ‘Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations’ (Para. 156); ‘Parishes, movements, schools and other Church institutions can help in a variety of ways to support families and help them grow.......The parish office should be prepared to deal helpfully and sensitively with family needs and be able to make referrals, when necessary, to those who can help’ (Para. 229).
In England and Wales, the National Board of Catholic Women recently published a booklet that offers pastoral care and guidance on domestic violence. This booklet contains useful links and resources to help those suffering in various situations of abuse and also survivors who need time and space to heal and recover. Here in Ireland, ACCORD offer support through its helpline. The link to the booklet and details of the support offered by ACCORD are given below.
The problem of domination in human relationships that often leads to violence is a moral problem that requires conversion and repentance. Minor adjustments at the edges of the issue are not enough. Violence against women is a societal problem but also a human problem and all of us have to take greater responsibility for it. Domination and violence dehumanizes women but also men. This is what happens when we lose sight of our deepest vocation to be people of love whose lives exist as a gift for the other. It also happens when we drift away from communion with our Creator God, the source of love and the source of the harmony and communion between us that cannot be manufactured but only received as gift.
In this time of Lent, we ask forgiveness for attitudes of domination against others and times when that has been expressed in violent words and actions. We pray for Sarah Everard, her grieving family and all other women who have been victims of violence and domestic abuse. May all the relationships we enjoy be marked by mutual respect and complementarity. And may the stresses and strains of this lockdown be faced by us creatively and positively in a way that never leads to violence.
I conclude with a prayer composed by a woman victim of domestic violence, taken from the booklet ‘Raising Awareness of Domestic Abuse’.
‘Lord, protect me, guide me, keep me safe. Grant me the strength, wisdom and good judgement to know what to do in any situation. Help me to know when and who to ask for help. Help me to value myself as you value me and expect the love and respect you intend for me. Help me to break old patterns that have harmed me and put me at risk. Help me to remember that I can say no to anything that is not in my best interests. Help me to remember that you made me to be in your image as a precious child of God. With my unique gifts and contributions to this wonderful world. Help me to remove or avoid anything that stands between me and my path, my journey and all that makes me the best that I can be. Let me feel worthy of love and let your love in to mend this broken heart, mind and life so that I can be whole and wonderful. In you I place my love and trust’. Amen’.
To upload the booklet 'Raising Awareness of Domestic Abuse', click on
In Ireland, the ACCORD Couples and Relationships Support Line
is open Monday to Friday 9am - 8pm where you can speak to an experienced counsellor. Telephone 01 5313331
Accord CLG Phone: 01 5053112 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm)
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, see Wexford Women's Refuge, Distillery Road. 053-9121876