The ancient world was very far from being politically correct, and as a result, the Bible contains passages that seem politically incorrect today.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, St. Paul seems to suggest that women should be totally silent in church.

Is this true?

If so, how do we square it with the practice of the Church today?

This is an interesting question.

Recently, a priest who is a member of the Secret Information Club wrote and said:

I would appreciate your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. This is difficult to address in front of a group of women.

I understand the difficulty.

Reading the Passage Itself

Let's begin by looking at what the passage says, with a bit of the immediate context:

1 Corinthians 14

[33b] As in all the churches of the saints,
[34] the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.
[35] If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church
[36] What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
[37] If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
[38] If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

The immediate context does not, in this case, make things easier. It actually seems to make them harder.

St. Paul appears to "up the ante" by saying that this is a commandment from the Lord, and that anyone who rejects this view should have his view rejected.

But perhaps the broader context of St. Paul's thought may put things in a different light.

And, in fact, it does. Even just a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul indicates that women do not have to remain literally silent in church . . .

What St. Paul Also Says About Women Speaking in Church

When he deals with the issue of head coverings in church, St. Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 11

[4] Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head,
[5] but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven.

The head covering requirement was a culture-specific way of expressing a particular truth, and because our culture is different, the Church does not see the head covering requirement as binding (see below).

The important part for our purposes, however, is St. Paul talking about a woman praying or prophesying, and the context is liturgical. St. Paul is dealing with what people do in church.

Otherwise he would be saying women should always wear head coverings and men should never wear head coverings, which has never been understood to be the case. Head coverings were used by both sexes on a regular basis in the ancient world, when people did not spend most of their time in climate-controlled environments and sun glasses had not been invented.

This means that St. Paul recognizes that women can publicly pray and prophesy in church--both activities involving speaking. Thus his later remarks about women remaining silent don't mean total silence.

Women can speak in church.

St. Paul must mean something else in the later passage.

Before we get to what he means, it's important to recognize something else about his thought . . .

Fundamental Equality

St. Paul believes that men and women are fundamental equal before God. Indeed, it is to him that we owe the following passionate statement about human equality:

Galatians 3

[27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
[28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul did acknowledge differences between the sexes, but those differences are understood within the framework of fundamental equality before God in Christ.

Women Speaking in Church Today

Of course, like men, women speak in church in all kinds of ways today. But even today there is one form of speaking in church that women do not do, and the vast majority of men don't do it, either. It is giving the homily.

According to the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 767 §1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.

The Church has seen fit that certain official teaching functions, such as the homily, should be reserved to those who have received the sacrament of holy orders. In the liturgy, the homily counts as one of these. Outside the liturgy, the acts of the Magisterium are also in this category, for only bishops can exercise the Church's Magisterium.

Women can today teach in other capacities in the Church. They can be anything from CCD teachers to theology professors.

And even in the first century women--including women Paul knew--could teach in non-liturgical, non-magisterial capacities. For example, Priscilla helped give the evangelist Apollos private instruction on the true role of Jesus (Acts 18:26). In fact, Priscilla seems to have taken the lead role, since she is mentioned before her husband, Aquilla, in the passage.

Might St. Paul's remarks about women not speaking in church have to do with this issue--not adopting teaching functions proper to the ordained?

That is, actually, how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has understood the matter . . .

Inter Insigniores

In 1976 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published an instruction called Inter Insigniores on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. In setting this issue in a larger context, the Congregation touched on some of the passages in which St. Paul discusses women. In particular, the Congregation wrote:

Another objection [to the Church's practice of not ordaining women] is based upon the transitory character that one claims to see today in some of the prescriptions of Saint Paul concerning women, and upon the difficulties that some aspects of his teaching raise in this regard.

But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.

However, the Apostle's forbidding of women to speak in the assemblies (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Ti, 2:12) is of a different nature, and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognises as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (1 Cor 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly.

For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24): it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.

Nor should it be forgotten that we owe to Saint Paul one of the most vigorous texts in the New Testament on the fundamental equality of men and women, as children of God in Christ (Gal 3:28).

Therefore there is no reason for accusing him of prejudices against women, when we note the trust that he shows towards them and the collaboration that he asks of them in his apostolate.

Pope Benedict on the Passage

The most recent magisterial statement on the passage that I am aware of is from one of Pope Benedict's general audiences in 2007.

He only dealt with the passage briefly, and he referred the matter to exegetes (Bible scholars) to articulate more fully, but he also understood the apparent prohibition in a conditioned way that does not require literal silence:

The Apostle accepts as normal the fact that a woman can "prophesy" in the Christian community (I Cor 11: 5), that is, speak openly under the influence of the Spirit, as long as it is for the edification of the community and done in a dignified manner.

Thus, the following well-known exhortation: "Women should keep silence in the Churches" (I Cor 14: 34) is instead to be considered relative.

Let us leave to the exegetes the consequent, much discussed problem of the relationship between the first phrase - women can prophesy in Churches - and the other - they are not permitted to speak; that is, the relationship between these two apparently contradictory instructions. This is not for discussion here [General Audience, Feb. 14, 2007].


St. Paul Can Be Hard to Understand

St. Paul's writings can be difficult to understand at times. This was noted by St. Peter himself, when he wrote:

2 Peter 3

[15b] So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,
[16] speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

The precise way to square everything St. Paul says regarding the role of women in the Church may fall into the "hard to understand" category, but we can approach the text recognizing the fundamental equality of the sexes that St. Paul emphasizes and that the statement he makes regarding women being silent in church does not require what you might think if the passage were taken in isolation.

By the Way . . .

I mentioned that the priest who wrote in is a member of the Secret Information Club. That's a free service I offer by email in which I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

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He has a lot of interesting things to say!

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In the meantime, what do you think?