Many people who wish to reject the Catholic Church's teachings on sex and marriage (and women's equality and dignity) refer to chapter 5 of the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, where Paul writes, "Wives, be subject to your husbands," and say the Church's beliefs are founded upon years and years of patriarchal tradition. It is useful, then, to look at St. Paul's letter a little more closely, and to discuss what exactly the Catholic Church teaches concerning women in marriage.
The context of the above quote is important for a deeper understanding of what St. Paul actually means:
"Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
"For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband." (New American Bible, Ephesians 5:21-33, emphases mine).
So, what is St. Paul trying to say here? Is he telling us that wives should do what they're told and that husbands can lord it over their wives? On the contrary! He speaks here about a special kind of love (married love) in which there is mutual subjection, meaning that both the husband and the wife should treat each other as equals (note the line "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies"), giving respect to each other as if they were 'one flesh.' This does not mean that women and men are the same, though; surely, anyone can see that a man and a woman's physical characteristics are different. As such, the Church wisely points out that man and woman are made to complement each other.
Pope John Paul II puts it best, in one of the homilies that make up his Theology of the Body: "When St. Paul writes "be subject to your husbands" (v. 22), he "does not intend to say that... marriage is a pact of domination of the husband over the wife. ... Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife" (Aug. 11, 1982)" (Theology of the Body for Beginners, page 81).
"When the contested (and detested) verses of Ephesians 5 are read in their full context, we realize that—far from demeaning women and absolving abusive men—St. Paul is restoring the only sure foundation for the proper balance of love between the sexes. In effect, we might conclude that St. Paul is saying something like this: "Sure, since this is the language you're used to, we can talk about 'submission' in marriage. But that means one thing to the Gentiles. Here's how it must look for followers of Christ" (80).
The marriage bond is also very important because it is a sign of the covenant between Christ and the Church. As Christ sacrificed himself on the cross for his 'bride,' the Church, Christian Marriage is a sign of Christ's covenant. Christopher West describes equality as "a 'great mystery' that proclaims the union of Christ and the Church. When we experience this as the 'content' of our sexual attractions, we don't want to lust—we want to genuflect" (81).
I have only begun to discuss a small portion what the Church teaches about human sexuality and the dignity of women (and men) in this blog posting. I could probably write a master's thesis on the topic and only be scratching the surface of the Church's deep well of instruction and reflections. I encourage anyone interested in Catholic beliefs about sexuality, equality, marriage, and human dignity to read the following (these have been inspiration for me):