Anca Manolache (1959)

With this article I introduce to the readers of Orthodoxy in Dialogue a Romanian Orthodox woman, Anca Lucia Manolache (1923-2013), a theologian who remained surprisingly active even through the communist years. Women had been allowed to study theology before the advent of communism in 1946 in order to teach religion in public schools. Due to the ban on this in communist regimes throughout the Soviet bloc, Romanian women who trained in theology before 1948 had to reorient themselves toward other teaching jobs. Beginning in 1991, two years after the fall of communism in Romania, the door was reopened for women to be trained as religion teachers.

During the communist period, laywomen were almost unheard of in the country’s two Orthodox theological institutes that remained open. Yet it was during communism that Manolache, who had prior degrees in law and philology, embarked on the study of theology. In 1959 she was arrested by the communist authorities for “omitting to denounce her friends.” When she eventually got out of prison she studied toward a doctorate in theology under another famous political prisoner who was also released from prison in 1964, Father Dumitru Stăniloae. In 1964 she was hired to work at the Romanian Orthodox publishing house, The Biblical and Missionary Institute, in Bucharest. Among other duties, she was the main editor of Stăniloae’s Romanian translation of the Philokalia (12 volumes in total), as well as the copy editor of his magnum opus, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (known as The Experience of God in English). 

While leading a rather discreet life she began reflecting on the role of women in the Church. She was allowed to participate in some international forums dealing with this question, and even managed to publish her views in several articles beginning in the 1970s. 

This brief essay looks at how Manolache, a lonely voice even in today’s ecclesial landscape, speaks about women in the Orthodox Church. In her articles and interviews, she emphasizes the discrimination that Romanian Orthodox women endured, and the subservient and secondary roles they played in church and family, using historical interpretation, biblical exegesis, and theological and juridical arguments to demonstrate her case. At no point during her lifetime, in private or in public, did she defend women’s ordination to the priesthood, although she was open to that possibility: she wrote that, in her studies, she found no impediment to the possibility of ordaining women in the Orthodox Church. 

Upon her passing away to eternal life in 2013 at the venerable age of 90, the official media outlets of the Romanian Patriarchate did not consider it necessary to make any mention of her death, although the same outlets are quick to commemorate the lives of insignificant men who have made little to no contribution to Orthodoxy. 

Manolache’s reflections on women in the Orthodox Church were fostered by her official participation in the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women as a member, and in its Commission on Theology and Spirituality as an expert, where she felt the need to provide a report on the status of women in the Orthodox Church. 

In the introduction to her Problematica Femenină in Biserica lui Hristos: Un Capitol de Antropologie Creștină (Feminine Problematics in the Church of Christ: A Chapter on Christian Anthropology), she writes that, beyond the developments in personhood that were introduced by Leontius of Byzantium and Maximus the Confessor, Orthodox theology did not further develop the “two poles” that represent the human person, that is, an anthropology of man and woman. She notes that the time has come for the Church to give an account of women, now that we live at a time when social, anthropological, and ethnological sciences have opened up the subject of women’s rights. 

In Feminine Problematics, Manolache begins by saying that the year 1975, declared as International Women’s Year, had given a small impetus to the Orthodox Church to reflect theologically on the role of women in the Church. She reviews the Byzantine-inspired legislation used in Romania from the 17th to the 19th centuries which emphasized the subordinate role of women: the Teaching Book (1646) and the Correction of the Law (1652). The latter, for instance, states that “the woman is more stupid than the man,” and “because of her weak physical force and [general] weakness of nature” she should be led by man. According to Manolache these pieces of medieval legislation—although allegedly of Christian inspiration—regard women as enemies who need to be oppressed. They allow their husbands to beat them or have them arrested, while the woman who beats her husband is to be divorced. Men could more easily obtain divorce than women, including in some instances without a court order, while women were entitled to request a divorce only if the husband was a sexual pervert or had fallen into heresy, or if he beat her extremely violently. In the case of rape, the rapist was to be forgiven if he married the woman he raped or punished if he did not. 

While the attitude toward women changed somewhat in the cities during the last part of the 19th century due to the adoption of French and Italian civil and penal codes, Manolache believed that the mentality in the villages remained unchanged, influenced as it was by the monastic mentality which had been misogynistic through and through. Until almost the end of communism, Romania continued to be a predominantly rural society. Thus, the conservative peasant mentality among the clergy and laity explained the continuing presence of misogyny in Romania. Manolache adds that it was inconceivable in Romanian society in the 1980s to speak about women enjoying their sex life, or to address in an ecclesial context the issue of rape and its devastating consequences for women. The Church dealt with these issues only during the sacrament of confession, using advice drawn from the ancient canons, but never addressing them publicly or theologically. 

Manolache notes that, in the Church, women can aspire to be administrative employees or to fulfil their vocation as nuns, but never were they to even think about the ordination of women to the priesthood, or even about the restoration of the female diaconate, despite the recommendations of the First International Orthodox Women’s Consultation—held paradoxically in Romania in 1976—to study the issue of women’s ordination in the light of Orthodox tradition. 

She expresses her disappointment that three of the main male Orthodox theologians who spoke at the 1976 Consultation (Stăniloae, Chițescu, and Ivan) merely repeated misogynistic commonplaces from patristic tradition, according to which “woman has a complementary role to that of the man, this role being minor; the woman should be satisfied with her motherhood, the education of children, and with providing the best conditions for man’s success in the public life and his development.” 

Her recommendations for ending misogynistic attitudes include the modernization of Orthodox exegesis of the Bible, which tends to embrace old principles of interpretation through the repetition of patristic exegesis. She recommends the abandonment of the second creation story of Eve as being derived from Adam’s rib, the updating of physiological knowledge about menstruation (instead of continuing to embrace that of the Old Testament), and treating marriage theologically not only from a moral but also from an anthropological perspective. 

Manolache deals with a number of related questions in the remainder of Feminine Problematics. These include the following observations of hers: 

  • The Church’s eschatological vision has prevented her historically from taking a proactive approach to important social issues—such as slavery— until forced to do so. The time has thus come for discrimination against women to end. If one looks at the accumulated knowledge of biological, medical, and social sciences, and acknowledges the divine providence that has made this possible, the Church must respond by offering new solutions and new interpretations. This includes a reassessment of the prayers for a woman on the 40th day after childbirth.
  • Limiting women to their maternal role is wrong. Inspired by a number of French anthropologists to whose works she had access in 1980s Romania, Manolache notes that there is not much talk about a “paternal vocation.” In her view, the sexualization of the relationship between man and woman led to the wrong understanding of their relationship, “through the depreciation and vulgarization of human sexuality.” She shifts the argument in the direction of the distinction between nature and person, with application to gender. Talk about nature and person was very much in the theological air in 1970s and 1980s Romania, due in particular to Stăniloae’s writings on personalistic theology as well as some of the works of Vladimir Lossky and, to a lesser degree, John Zizioulas, which were circulating in samizdat. Yet Orthodox theology has not contributed to our understanding of gender as much as Manolache would have liked.
  • The nature of Tradition needs to be more deeply explored. Manolache discerns three traditions: apostolic tradition, coming from the apostles of Jesus, which elaborates the teachings known by the apostles directly from their Lord, but that were not written in the Scriptures; patristic tradition, which contains the opinions of the church Fathers and ends with Saint John of Damascus; and Church Tradition, which will last for the duration of the Church. All three sub-traditions make known to believers the will of God.

In Manolache’s view, the third type of tradition—Church Tradition—allows for “new things” to emerge slowly in theology. She writes:

One hopes for an expansion and deepening of the theology of the Holy Spirit, but also of mariology and anthropology…. For example, the consequences that christology has for mariology should determine new statements about the Mother of God and humanity. One of these statements could be about the truth already recognized that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, is the “second Eve” and that, due to the redemptive act of Christ, Christian women should no longer be referred to as the “daughters of Eve” but the “daughters of Mary.” One can add that the only human connection of Jesus to humanity is a woman, and God has thus chosen the woman as a partner in His plan to save the world. …[I]t is Mary who is the mother of the entire humanity in an ontological sense.

Statements of this type were not made by the Church, Manolache continues, because there was not the courage to accept the ultimate consequences of the truth. The Church did not “lift the moral anathema against the woman, who is still considered as playing a minor role in her Church, in the [life of] couples, and in society…. The Tradition of the Church is the construction site which the Comforter uses to soften human life by new knowledge which has to lighten up the human spirit and make it more capable of deification.”

Anca Manolache’s views are slowly making their way through the writings of Romanian Orthodox theologians. Male theologians tend to disagree partially with her critiques of the Orthodox Church’s discrimination against women, and some dismiss her as a feminist, which is considered something negative in Romania. Female theologians embrace some of her interpretations, but do not emphasize her enough for fear of retaliation from the hierarchy and from male theologians in more powerful positions in the faculties of theology.

However, another of her books, The Sacraments in the Life of the Church (Cluj: Renasterea, 2004), is a required textbook for priestly skills exams in one Romanian diocese. Slowly but surely, she will be noticed.

Lucian Turcescu holds a PhD in Theology from St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He is a professor of historical theology at Concordia University in Montréal QC and an associate editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.  His research and teaching interests include early Christianity, patristics, religion and politics, ecumenism, religion and human rights, and Orthodox Christianity and gender. See his faculty profile for his publication history and additional information. 

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