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The Church Oppresses Women DEBUNKED

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Modern secular people have forgotten the role of the Catholic Church in lifting humanity out of ignorance, violence, poverty, and disease. Perhaps most forgotten, is the Catholic contribution to an embrace of the dignity of women. Simone Rizkallah, director of program growth at Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), explains.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic Faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. One of the things we do here as Catholics is that Catholics have a sorted history when it comes to the treatment of women and not just a sorted history that as a matter of fact, many people will tell you quite openly that the Catholic Church is an oppressor of women. The Catholic Church needs to be overcome so that women can be fully liberated. Our guest this hour spends a lot of her time thinking about these things and teaching on these things, and sharing on these things. She works for Endow, educating on the nature and dignity of women’s. Simone Rizkallah is our guest. Hi, Simone.

Simone Rizkallah:

Hi, Cy. How are you?

Cy Kellett:

I’m very well. I was going to try to say your title and then I realized I forgot it. You’re not the director of development, you’re the director of growth or something?

Simone Rizkallah:

Yes. Director of Program Growth.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Okay. Just real quick, would you give us a sentence or two about what Endow does?

Simone Rizkallah:

Yes. Endow, which again stands for educating on the nature and dignity of women, calls women together to study important documents of the Catholic church. So, papal encyclical, apostolic letters, exhortation, the writings of the saints and female doctors of the church and especially with a preference towards John Paul II who wrote a lot about the genius of women.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I’m going to take my first question for you then from an article a few years ago, I think it’s about three years ago now, in America Magazine, the Catholic magazine. Why do women stay? Why do women stay in the Catholic Church? And I think a good part of the undergirding of the question is it’s just a kind of maybe an inhospitable place for women. So why do women stay?

Simone Rizkallah:

I think the church is the greatest liberator of women, not the greatest oppressor of women, the greatest liberator of women actually, even though people in the church have of course treated women badly, which John Paul II recognizes and even said for this, he said this in his letter to women, which is a letter he wrote to all women of the world, not just Christian women, an amazing letter, one of Endow’s touchstone texts. And he says that whenever this has happened, he says, and I quote, “For this, I’m truly sorry when members of the church have reflected more the attitudes of the culture than the kind of culture that Christianity is supposed to generate in the world.” So he apologizes for that in letter to women.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I mean there’s a certain way in which male aggression towards women and a dismissal of women and violence towards women and all of that is the most natural evil, I suppose, to our species. Because men are in general physically stronger than women and men are, I suppose there’s a kind of aggression that’s natural to the male of the species because for defense and hunting and all of that. And so that’s often been turned in against women. And Christians aren’t exempt from that by any means. I guess what I’m saying is it’s because it seems like the most natural evil for men to commit, it’s a really hard one to root out.

Simone Rizkallah:

It absolutely is. I think it’s actually where the battle is. And in his earlier document, which is not a pastoral letter the way that letter to women is, but in his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, on the dignity and vocation of women, which is where Endow gets her name. In section 10 of that document, he really goes into that. He goes into the curse that women received in Genesis where he says he shall rule over you. So when you’re talking about the way that the secular world would talk about toxic masculinity, this dominating exploitative relationship instead of one of priesthood and service, that goes all the way back to Genesis.

It’s part of the curse, what happened in the original sin, which is the unity of the male and female bond, which is supposed to be the most beautiful bond, sacramental bond and expressive of our unity with God. And he says that, and I can read it right here, he says that, “But this threat is more serious for the woman since domination takes the place of being a sincere gift and therefore living for the others.” So he’s very clear that this disruption in the order of grace has affected both men and women, but it’s affected women in a particular way and in a worse way.

Cy Kellett:

Right. Yeah, a worse way because when our evil tendencies are unleashed I suppose, then the male of the species just has more capacity, more capacity to impose his evil way on women and on children. Yeah. So with John Paul II, you said, apologize for this.

Simone Rizkallah:

He did. He absolutely did. He’s not defensive when he’s calling out the sins within the church because of course the church is a hospital for sinners, right? He’s not defensive at all. He’s very holy. He recognized it. He has enough… I mean, he’s a saint. He believes in Jesus Christ. So there’s no need for a spirit of defensiveness. Jesus is the savior of all these evils. And because of his great faith, he’s able to really apologize when the church has acted beneath herself, beneath being the dignity of the body of Christ. And he very clearly addresses from history, from scripture, from tradition that women do often in a society, as you pointed out, get the short end of the stick. And that’s true as much today as it has always been. Yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So I think many will frame this as the pope finally recognizing that the modern liberation of women is something that the church should embrace and that the church needs to overcome its own history that it’s presented I think in a kind of an undifferentiated way of there’s the battle days that the church was part of. Now we have the good new days. Oh, finally the pope is coming into the good new days.

Simone Rizkallah:

Yeah. Of course there’s never a simplistic… History is never simplistic, and that’s certainly not true. I mean, John Paul II will say that so much progress has been made for women. And I think when he says that, he is talking about first wave feminism, if we want to call it that. There is equal dignity for women, educational opportunities, all of these women’s rights, so to speak.

And he criticizes those who criticize the work of women in first wave feminism. But first wave feminism was also pro family, pro marriage, pro life, and against contraception. So there was nothing contrary about first wave feminism with the gospel. It’s second and third wave feminism that John Paul II was deeply concerned about, which is what really prompted him to write letter to women because that came before the Beijing conference was going to enshrine abortion in international law. And abortion is a great oppression of women and children and family and society. So again, he’s not defensive, he can affirm the ways in which the progress has been made towards women in society, but also very severely criticized what may be called fundamental feminism, which is really terrible for women and terrible for families and terrible for children. Yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. In part because it’s just part of the entire modern move towards individualism. And none of us really benefits from this hyperindividualism where it’s me and my power and my rights that we can see that because we don’t have healthy communities anymore and nobody can thrive unless there’s healthy communities.

Simone Rizkallah:

Yeah. And I guess a very profound form of individualism is then gender neutrality, which is again really, really bad for women. Because if you’re going to make the claim that women are oppressed because they’re particularly women, or that sexism is a problem in the church in the world, well you can’t then destroy sex and gender difference if you’re going to make a claim that one of those groups is being treated unjustly. So it’s bad for women what’s happening right now with all the gender confusion and gender ideology. It’s setting women back terribly.

Cy Kellett:

The thing is though, Twitter disagrees with you. I don’t know how important that is to you, but Twitter will kick you off for saying that.

Simone Rizkallah:

Well, it’s a weird world, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

You might just have to live with that.

Simone Rizkallah:

I think I’ll just have to live with that. And also I think more interestingly and more… Because once you admit that people are always sinful, then you can get to the interesting part, which is the fact of what I said earlier, which is that the church is the great liberator of women. And when you talk about a women’s expression and the genius of women and women’s fulfillment and satisfaction, where have you seen that most profoundly than in the female saints who has created such original personalities like Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, like St. Teresa of Ávila, like St. Catherine of Siena, who could tell the pope, “Dear sweet Jesus on earth, grow a backbone.” Where can you find such self actualized women than in the saints? And it’s the church who has produced these women. It’s the church.

Cy Kellett:

And named most of its buildings after them. People never noticed that. But really all these buildings named Catherine and Mary and Joan and wait, this is an oppressive society gets women? Well, let me ask you this though. So there is a certain trend or a tendency in the way modern people think about this that you will see in extreme cases in The Da Vinci Code and whatnot, but often in very respectable works as well or works that would at least seem to be more respectable.

The idea that yes, Simone, you’re right about that. The church is the great liberator of women, but there were women deacons, probably women priests in the early church and all of that, the church forgot about, somehow that covered it over. There’s a conspiracy theory, but I don’t want to call it. It’s not so much a conspiracy as the weight of the male patriarchy covered over all of this good that Jesus did and got rid of it. And that’s how we ended up with the church that as sexist as it is today. What do you make of that?

Simone Rizkallah:

Yeah. So it’s a trigger. I think it’s so boring because I’m bored. I’m bored with it. So I’m so bored. Because I’m bored with it because, well, if we’re going to use the language of the secular, it’s so patriarchal to try to impose roles onto women when it’s really about our being and our feminine spirit, and Edith Stein I think was bored with it too because she’d lecture on women all over Europe and I mean, she was an actual victim of racism and sexism and all of that. This woman who could claim that as her identity. She was smart. But somehow, even though she was rejected by being a college professor, even though her mentor, the founder of the phenomenological movement in Germany said, “You’re overqualified to be a college professor.” But she didn’t get it because she’s a woman.

Then she didn’t get it because she was Jewish. So this woman can totally claim a victimhood identity and yet doesn’t. And so she goes around and lectures on and the question is, oh, can women do what men can do? And of course they can do what men can do and they can do it better sometimes, oftentimes, and I don’t say that with any kind of arrogance, it’s almost like she’s bored with it. And I’m bored with the question of deaconesses and priests because oh my gosh, feminine vocations are so much more diverse and interesting than just a role you can put a person into. And as my friend, Suzanne Wolfe, who’s a writer who’s a Catholic, not a Catholic writer, but a writer who’s a Catholic says, “Women are already priests. We already sacrifice so much. We don’t need God to call us to sacrifice for other human beings.”

This is wired into the feminine spirit to give life. When a woman has a baby, this is my body that I give for you. What is more priestly than that? I don’t know. So to me it’s a demotion, honestly. The greatest discipling creature. And you talk about churches being named after women. I mean, how much sacred art is about Mary, the Virgin Mary? I mean, how many Mary statues in Catholic? I mean we love our lady who’s queen of heaven and earth. I mean, is she worried about if she could be called a priest or not or be called the ordained ministry? So I’m bored with the question, but I’m sure it’s important to address, but I’m bored.

Cy Kellett:

I have more questions and I’m scared to ask them, Simone. I know I’m scared to bore you.

Simone Rizkallah:

No, no, I’m not bored with you. I’m bored that we can’t take the conversation to a deeper, more profound level because this is where people are. They’re stuck in that. They’re stuck there.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I want to trade stories with you about the church as liberator because I want to tell you a story because I know you got a story that you want to tell me. But I didn’t tell you I was going to tell you this story, but you talk about the church is the great liberator of women. I think part of the reason you can’t see that is because the society that we live, the church has already been so successful in its mission. So that the reason you get women’s liberation movements in Christian countries and not in other countries is because the ground was so fertile for them, because the work was done in many ways. We were being called, in other words, to live up to what we were already saying in Christian societies. So here’s my story.

I interviewed a missionary bishop from Africa and he was an old timey missionary like walked out into the bush country and went to villages and to proclaim the gospel where he said that basic religion was ancestor and worship and animism. And he would go out there and he says he would start to preach and people would sit and listen and all that. And he would say that he would talk about God loved the world and he sent Jesus, his son. And Jesus taught us that men and women are equally loved by God.

And he said all the women would say, “Sign me up, I think I’m a Christian.” And he said it was always the women who came to Christianity first because the fundamental message that we see in St. Paul more than anything we see in the person of Jesus is men and women are fundamentally equal before God and in their nature are fundamentally equal. This is actually not a common idea. See, I think people in the western world think this is a common idea. This is an idea that was introduced to the world by Christianity, by Christ himself.

Simone Rizkallah:

Oh, I completely agree with you. I think you nailed it there. And I think that’s the number one historical perspective that needs to be clarified. It’s because of your, again, to use secular word, so-called privilege and a privilege that was given to you by the church that you have forgotten where this concept of equal dignity even came from. So I think you’re absolutely right, Cy, hit the nail on the head there. And in the early church, I mean the Romans dismissed Christianity because they thought, oh, that’s a religion for women. I mean that’s a historical fact. And this is by historians who are not Catholics that Christianity was just dismissed because that’s for girls because women just got so much behind it because feminine dignity and equality was a radical new idea that originates in Jesus Christ and in the church in the gospel. So I think you’re totally, totally right there. I mean so many problems of these perspectives can be solved just by taking not even a deep look at history, a medium deep look at history.

Cy Kellett:

Just a medium look.

Simone Rizkallah:

You don’t even have to deep dive, just a medium dive. But the fact that women ran convents, monasteries, ran into consecrated virginity, started orphanages, schools, the first hospital in Rome, one of the first fabiola was run by a woman. I mean you can just learn these things and go, “Oh my gosh, this was unheard of before the Christian faith. Completely unheard of.”

Cy Kellett:

Right. Yeah. Where are the great institutions being run by women before the church’s institutions? Show them to me, I’d love to see it. But you wanted to tell us a little bit about the actual effect of the church in the world today on the lives of women.

Simone Rizkallah:

Yeah, I just have one quick story. I was talking to a new friend of mine, a priest from Cameroon who’s teaching in the United States, and he was telling me something extraordinary and so very Catholic. In Cameroon, if a man can’t pay a debt, well they come to claim the debt and if they can’t pay it, they’ll have to give away one of their daughters. Horrific and young daughters to marry 13 year old girls marrying like 60 year old men. I mean it’s so undignified to put it nicely. So what the church has done in this area in Cameroon has created a system whereby they buy back these girls, pay the debts, and then send these girls to Catholic schools and educate them. And so now the leading influencers and politicians are actually Catholic women because there are these women who are rescued from these horrible situations educating Catholic schools and now are contributing to their society. That’s the best of the church right there. This is what the church is doing right now. This is what the church has done throughout history and it’s just stunning.

Cy Kellett:

So what about in the actual lives of… Because I have to say in my vantage point, because I get to interview lots and lots of Catholic leaders, one of the most exciting and interesting things going on in the church and in the world today is happening among Catholic women. It’s really an untold story, this intellectual life that Catholic women are sharing led by so many great Catholic theologians and philosophers, but it’s like a rediscovery of the Catholic social teaching, the Catholic intellectual tradition among women. And it seems to me that the subtext of this story is that what these women are finding is that all of this is an antidote to the way they’ve been raised or what our culture has given them. They’re not finding it to be bondage, they’re finding it to be, “Oh my gosh, this is so much better than what I was ever offered in this society.”

Simone Rizkallah:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think the church is referred to as Mater et Magistra, mother and teacher. I mean, what’s more matriarchal than that? The [inaudible 00:21:15], the church that receptivity to the gospel, that’s the greatest image of the church. There’s so much freedom in the church’s teachings, not just in the church’s teachings on dignity in the human person, but the church’s teachings on the moral life. What’s more liberating for women than men who just can’t divorce them on a whim? Which is true in the early church, true now. You can’t just leave me for another woman. Right? It’s not permitted. Premarital sex, pornography, abortion, contraception. You can’t just leave me, you also can’t objectify me in my marriage. I mean there’s so much protection and liberation for women in the church’s teachings about the human person and the moral life that we’re all called to. So once you go deep into that, it’s extraordinary.

Cy Kellett:

And I do think that in all sincerity, especially since the pontificate of John Paul II, who I know is very important to you personally, I think that men, I mean, we’re thick. I heard a woman theologian told me the other day, she said, “I don’t think it’s primarily a problem that men oppress women. I don’t think they know women are there.” And I thought that was such a striking thing to say because I do think John Paul really almost like a little slap in the head to Catholic men to wake up to your role in all of this and your role imitate Christ and dying for others. And so you see these Catholic marriages now of these where the wife in the marriage got the message of her dignity and the husband in the marriage got the message that he’s to die for his wife and his children to die to himself for them, which is going to mean he’s going to have to notice that they’re there and things like that. And these marriages are actually very, very happy. People are happy in these marriages.

Simone Rizkallah:

Yes, absolutely. I think that’s very true, whoever said that to you, and I was thinking about that very thing when I was thinking about this interview because I thought, oh, the problem right now is not so much just deep dark oppression within church, but what you were saying, which is that yes, women, at least in our life experience, aren’t oppressed in the scary big ways, but more that are we coming alive as Christians? Are we really coming alive? Are we living that glory and that happiness and that fruitfulness that we are called to live?

And I think she’s right. I think you’re right too that I mean John Paul II isn’t just saying, “Stop oppressing women. So sorry, it’s happened.” He’s saying there’s a genius of women, there’s a genius, but the genius has to be cultivated, formed and allowed to flourish and expressed. And the Pope Paul VI before him and John the XXIII before him also really believe that. So it’s not just women, you shouldn’t be oppressed, but women, society, and culture, the churches support you so that your feminine genius can be expressed. And that’s what John Paul II says is vital and essential for a healthy church and for a healthy world. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Cy Kellett:

It also strikes me that this movement that the church is in now is not just some kind of recovery operation, recovering some golden era of the past or some golden understanding, but that there actually are new insights being made. I think in a large part, because we have people like you who are women who are well versed in philosophy and theology, who are using the very tools and the history that the church has to actually say new things. Not just to say what has already been said and find new expressions for it, but to say new things and to uncover new ways of living the Christian life as men and women.

Simone Rizkallah:

Yeah. Thank you for that. I agree. And I think that if we can actually commit to that, commit to the fact that yes, the Holy Spirit is operating in a new way, in new circumstances in every age, let’s try and pick up where the spirit’s moving and pay attention to reality and not so easily dismiss what’s happening in secular culture. Because being simplistic is the opposite of the intellectual life, and it’s the opposite of deep thought.

Cy Kellett:

But it’s what I do, Simone.

Simone Rizkallah:

No, no, it’s not what you do. Not at all. But to look and say, well, if this is happening in the secular world, let’s not just dismiss it because it’s a hurting world or actually we’re supposed to be the game changer’s call to redeem and restore the temporal order. So let’s take what’s happening seriously and be holy enough to see how does the gospel apply here and now into this particular situation. And I don’t know, sorry, I’m getting into neuroscience and the gospel these days. That’s where I’m living in my free time.

Cy Kellett:

Tell me about that.

Simone Rizkallah:

It’s really stunning. Well, briefly, John Paul II invited Dan Siegel, who’s a secular neuroscientist to come speak to the Vatican because you know how John Paul II was just obviously obsessed with dignity in a world that’s so undignified. And he was fascinated by the mother and the woman’s smile upon her child and how the gaze of the mother dignifies the child. And he wanted to hear what Dan Siegel had to say about the brain. Why do women hold babies on the left side, not the right side? Well that has something to do about the right side, left side of the brain. So it’s just stunning to me how our faith… Faith and reason are two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth as John Paul II said in Fides et ratio [inaudible 00:27:27] encyclical on faith and reason.

But to actually be able to go into that and to see those parallels to me has been very personally exciting and really faith building. I don’t know how many listeners have heard of Gabor Maté who’s I think a secular Jew from Hungary. His parents died in Auschwitz. He’s a physician who specializes in trauma and illness and PTSD and all these things and says our culture’s so toxic. And I was listening to an interview that he did recently where he said that it was fascinating because I’m listening to him who’s totally secular through the lens of John Paul II and he is saying, “Women are getting more sick than men and why is that?” Well, they’re getting more traumatized. And he’s like, “Well, why is that? Well, because they’re the great society’s shock absorbers. So when COVID happens and all these cultural…” He’s like, “It’s the women who are absorbing the stress of their spouses, of their children and feeling guilty if they can’t. So how priestly is that, that women are taking on the stress of all their relationships?”

He’s saying, “Because of this, women are getting more sick.” So what’s his solution? His solution sounds almost exactly like John Paul II’s solution. If I ever meet the guy somehow, I want to show him John Paul II talking about this because John Paul II in 1995 said that we need to build a society where women and motherhood is totally protected and preserved. Because if you don’t protect the woman and the mother, you’re not protecting the family. You’re not protecting the children. And so we should have an economic system where women don’t have to work out of pressure, out of stress, only if they want to work out of creativity and self expression and their personal vocation. And that’s almost exactly what Gabor Maté says coming at it just from a neuroscience perspective.

Cy Kellett:

That is fascinating to me. And I think just listening to you talk about that, that clarified for me why these conversations that Catholic women are having, and you see it in writing, you see it in books, you see it in documentaries, but you also see it in Endow where women are having these conversations is that the world is like, I don’t know, should we be… It’s communist against fascists against capitalists, but what’s needed is a new vision of the world and I feel like Catholic women are going to get there before anybody else gets there. This is the new vision of the world that’s going to work because it’s going to be realistic. It’s going to be truly human, not abstract, and it’s going to come from the heart of Christ through Catholic women. I think that’s why that excites me.

Simone Rizkallah:

Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that. That’s very affirming and very healing to hear you say that. And I may it be so. I really hope so. Because like you said, we don’t have to paint it. So many of the conversations are so boring and also useless.

Cy Kellett:

That’s right. Yeah.

Simone Rizkallah:

It’s not about should women work, should women stay at home. It’s not about any of those false dichotomies, it’s about the flourishing of the human person in the reality that Jesus Christ sets you in, in your personal vocation. Taking into consideration all these factors, body and soul, faith and reason, all of that, everything you just said, I’m just stepping on your great points, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

It’s really has been inspiring to see it for the last few years and realize there’s something really happening here. Something powerful is happening in the vision that Catholic women are birthing together in these conversations. So tell us, before I let you go, will you tell us a little bit about Endow and how people can connect with Endow if they want to?

Simone Rizkallah:

Yes. So please check out our website, endowgroups.org. E-N-D-O-W is how you spell it, which is a way of saying educating on the nature and dignity of women’s if you forget, and each Endow study is about an eight to 12 week experience. So you’re studying a document, you’re reading the actual words of John Paul II or St. Catherine of Sienna, or Teresa of Ávila, Pope Benedict, and you’re encountering the text, a commentary on it, and then discussion questions.

So an eight to 12 week Endow study is really what I would say is a full Christian experience in the sense that you’re not only encountering robust and rich content, but in the context of a small group community where you can really become formed because we’re formed through friendship and formed through community. The Christian thing isn’t something that’s done, like you were saying Individualistically alone, but within the context of a true community. And women are really hungry for that. They want to learn and grow and develop and be able to articulate their faith and discern their personal vocations. But when I say personal vocation, I don’t mean your state in life. I mean who you are in front of God, your unique mission. So yeah, so check us out and I’d love to talk to any woman who’s interested.

Cy Kellett:

Well, Simone, thanks very, very much. I’m guessing this, I’m going to ask you this though on the air, have we tried to hire you here at Catholic Answers? I bet we have. You could tell me. I feel like every time I hear you, I think, oh man. We must have tried to hire her. Have we tried, we just didn’t offer you enough? Is that what happened? I can tell by the way you’re laughing that it did happen. Dang it. Come on, Simone, think about it. We need you. Well, you’re doing great work. Thanks. I always love talking with you and I am so fired up by the work you do. Thanks very, very much.

Simone Rizkallah:

Thank you, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

And thanks for joining us here on Catholic Answers Focus. We love when you do. If you want to comment on this episode or any other episode, maybe you want to suggest a future guest or episode, send us an email, [email protected] is our email address, [email protected] And it takes the cheddar to do this so if you want to make a donation, you can do that over at givecatholic.com. You can give in any amount up to a million dollars. We do not accept donations over a million dollars. Givecatholic.com. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Simone Rizkallah has been our guest. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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