Jean-Pascal Gay Profile picture
Aug 4, 2018 24 tweets 4 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
THREAD : Hello #CatholicTwitter ! A small experiment in the history of moral theology. Let us take a step back from the discussion of the #deathpenalty, and discuss, well, hmm…, #wifebeating
1/ For the greatest part of the history of the Western Church, at least from the middle ages until the 19th century, theologians and canonists have unanimously acknowledged the ius correctionis of husbands over their wives, including beating (verberatio).
2/ This was seen as part of wider ius correction in economic communities (such as the family) justifying also correction of slaves and children.
3/ The Ius correctionis was itself part of the patria potestas (which allowed for instance a father to decide on the marriage of its children, and of course which was the reason why married woman were considered as minors)
4/ This patria potestas was understood as part of the imperium of the father. It included a right to discipline as a consequence of the depravity of Human Nature : a potestas coercendi et castigandi because family is, as every human community, imperfect.
5/ Medieval and Early Modern theologians and canonists acknowledgded a right not only to correct but to punish one’s wife.
6/ In the late 17the Georges Gobat – a theologian that was considered rather mild in his time – dedicated an entire section of his moral theology to the question « Quomodo uxor castinganda a viro », including a specific question regarding physical punishment
7/ Saint Alphonsus Liguori still acknowledged that the husband had a right to physically punish his wife in cases that were grave enough…
8/ The discussion between theologians was not about whether there existed such a right but about the gravity and severity of the beating itself and of its legitimate causes.
9/ In late 17th Europe jurists (both catholic and protestants), rather discussed whether a man could renounce his right to discipline his wife… and many concluded he could not…
10/ Theologians and canonists could find ground for their position in Scripture. They turned toverses regarding the legitimate punishment of children (Proverbs 13:24) and read the New Testament verses regarding submission to the husband as including such a right.
11/ Aquinas certainly saw no scriptural difficulties when he discussed excessive punishment by husbands in his Commentary on sentences (book 4, distinctions 36 and 37)
12/ Indeed, law accepting and regulating wife beating were on the books in every Catholic states in the Early Modern era. This is of course true of the Pontifical state.
13/ In Normandy, the custom found it to be excessive to beat one’s wife when using a stick larger than a inch and half (I am no expert but this seems awfully close to a baseball bat..)
14/ Theologians and canonists in Normandy (yes there was a faculty of theology in Caen at some point), as in the rest of the Catholic world, did not find any issue with such legislation.
15/ At some point, in the 19th century this changed. The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia in its articles on marriage and family is conspicuously silent on this issue, and promotes a (somewhat) more equal understanding of the relationship between husband and wives.
16/ Indeed, legislation in the West had already greatly evolved. As to the Church the evolution certainly also had to do with a changing understanding of family but also of gender and gender relations.
17/ In the 17th century, theological and canonical discourse on wife beating had connections to to a ‘scientific’ understanding of female physiology and psychology, and a general belief that women had less self-control than men and therefore required more ‘external’ discipline.
18/ So indeed, the teaching of the Church on this issue has changed dramatically. I do not think (but could be mistaken) we could find any 20th theologian (including before Vatican II) that would defend the ius correctionis as part of natural law as earlier theologians did.
19/ There has not been any great Papal proclamation on this and the change went largely unnoticed.Yet if it so, it is because none was needed, and perhaps because it occurred before Catholic started turning issues of morality into questions of faith
20/ This is not a small issue, particularly considering how widespread domestic violence was and still is, and considering its lethal consequences. It also has great connection to the issue of death penalty as both relied on a theology of punishment.
21/ Such changes are numerous in the history of the Church (slavery, usury, contraception, to name but a few). The only question for theologians is not whether they occurred but rather how they should be interpreted and even named.
22/ Whether they should be deemed as ‘development’ or ‘change’ is for the theologians, not for the historians to say. But they are undeniable. If we are to account for the infallibility of the Church and of the Pope, we have to do so by making sense of these evolutions.
23/ Denying them won’t stand as anything else but ignorance or – at best – cognitive dissonance.

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