The Catholic Church is subjected to a great deal of suspicion, if not outright scorn, when it comes to its treatment of women. Does the Church treat women as “second class”? In short, does the Catholic Church hate women? Few people would put the question that strongly, yet many believe the answer is “yes.”
As evidence, they point to sexist quotations from Church Fathers and sexist interpretations of Scripture. Even Scripture contains “subordination” passages, such as “Let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:24). Moreover, the Catholic Church is also well-known for its opposition to abortion and contraception, which many believe are the keys to women’s sexual and economic freedom. Finally, only men can be ordained priests. Isn’t that clear evidence of discrimination? As one slogan puts it: “If women are good enough to be baptized, why aren’t they good enough to be ordained?”
We’re a Church of Sinners
Unfortunately, members of the Church have not always followed Christ as closely as they should with respect to the treatment of women, and this lends credence to the accusations. As Pope John Paul II confessed, many members of the Church, including some in the hierarchy, have acted—and sometimes still act—in ways that fail to express the equality of man and woman. As John Paul wrote:
And if objective blame [for offenses against the dignity of women], especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the gospel vision. When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the gospel contains an ever relevant message that goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance, and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity that women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love. As we look to Christ at the end of this second millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves: How much of his message has been heard and acted upon? (Letter to Women 3).
The situation today is better than it once was, but sexual and physical abuse of women still occurs, as does unjust discrimination and the failure to recognize talents.
Of course, failing in Christian discipleship is not limited to wrongdoing against the dignity of women—baptism does not remove the believer from the temptations and weaknesses endured by all of humanity. Moreover, it is not only Catholics who victimize, and it is not only women who are victimized. As Robert Burns wrote, “Man’s inhumanity to man makes thousands mourn.” Cruel and unfeeling behavior stretches beyond Cain and Abel to Adam’s blaming of Eve.
But such shortcomings do not reflect what the Church is called to be. Sins against young and old, black and white, male and female are characteristic of all people. What is characteristic of Christians, though, is the imitation of Christ. The degree to which someone does not imitate Christ is the degree to which that person fails to be fully Christian. There is a long list of “Catholic” murderers. But when a Catholic commits murder, he separates himself from Christ, and therefore from the body of Christ, the Church.
Theologians Sometimes Fail
In addition to the sad but real failings of Catholics to live up to their calling in their treatment of women, Christian theology has also fallen short in this regard. Personal sin undoubtedly plays a role in the corruption of theology, but the cultural context must also be considered. Christianity arose in an environment of female inequality. Greek philosophy, as well as Hebrew sources, are rife with misogynistic judgments. It is not surprising that the Church Fathers sometimes adopted these attitudes without critical reflection—and some academics have been quick to interpret passages in the least charitable light. John Paul II continues in his Letter to Women:
Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history that has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves, and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning that down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting (LW 3).
Just as Christian thinkers will sometimes uncritically adopt the scientific outlook of the day, so, too, in the social realm. Hence, Fathers of the Church and great scholastic doctors not only at times uncritically repeat the sexist truisms inherited from the secular culture of their day but sometimes interpret the theological tradition in light of those assumptions. The same attitudes and judgments can also inform the reading of Scripture.
Therefore, the theology of the Church sometimes stands in need of correction. If revelation is really from God, then nothing revealed can be false or lacking in justice or goodness. But the same does not hold true for any individual’s interpretation of revelation, even a saintly and learned individual. The development of doctrine leads to a greater understanding of revelation in part by sorting out what actually pertains to revelation from what only seems to.
From Sublime to Repellent
Among all the sublime thought of great Christian theologians, we occasionally come across something repellent. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, following the sexist views of his time, held:
The male sex is more noble than the female, and for this reason he [Jesus] took human nature in the male sex (Summa Theologiae III:31:4 ad 1).
At the same time, Aquinas believed that the female sex should not be despised on this account, since Christ took his flesh from a woman. In other passages, too, Thomas shows an awareness of the equality of men and women recognized by Christ:
If a husband were permitted to abandon his wife, the society of husband and wife would not be an association of equals but, instead, a sort of slavery on the part of the wife (Summa contra Gentiles III:124:).
In fact, Thomas used the idea of equality in marital friendship to argue against polygamy and in favor of an unconditional love between husband and wife:
The greater the friendship is, the more solid and long lasting it will be. Now there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife, for they are united not only in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association even among beasts, but also in the partnership of the whole range of domestic activity. Consequently, as an indication of this, man must even “leave his father and mother” for the sake of his wife as it is said in Genesis (2:24).
Furthermore, Aquinas believed that the fact that Eve was made from Adam’s rib indicates that she was not above him (as she might be had she been created from Adam’s head) nor below him, like a slave (as she might be had she arisen from his feet). She comes from his side, indicating that she is a partner and companion. These statements of the equality of man and women—not the statement of male superiority—were new and radical. The specifically Christian attitude toward women—not the pre-existing pagan attitude—was new and radical. It has taken some time, though, for the wheat to be separated from the chaff.
Equal-Opportunity Moral Code
As it still does today, divorce in the ancient world left many women in dire economic and social straits. At the time of Christ, Mosaic law allowed a husband to leave his wife, but a wife could not leave her husband. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce established Christianity as the only religion in the history of the world to call its members to strict monogamy:
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11–12).
This teaching of Jesus protected women, for, according to Church Father Gregory of Nazianz:
The majority of men are ill-disposed to chastity and their laws are unequal and irregular. For what was the reason they restrained the woman but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress and the penalties of the law severe, but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation. I do not approve this custom (Oration 37:6).
By establishing one moral code obligatory on men and women alike, Christianity fostered a lasting commitment of unconditional covenantal love, protecting the family structure and putting the sexes on an equal footing.
What Women Really Thought
Apparently the justice of Christian morality offered a refreshing perspective to women in the ancient world accustomed to husbands who cheated and left at will. The number of women who converted to Christianity in the early centuries after Christ indicates that women were attracted to this new way of life. Indeed, they were among the most zealous converts and defenders of the faith:
Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance. Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God and found in the New Testament commands that husbands should treat their wives with such consideration and love as Christ manifested for his Church. Christian teaching about the sanctity of marriage offered a powerful safeguard to married women (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, Penguin, 58–59).
Many women today do feel alienated from the Church for a variety of reasons, but it is often because they disagree with the Church’s basic beliefs about the meaning of life, the nature of human happiness, and the interaction of the divine and the human.
Is Scripture Misogynistic?
But what should be made of subordination passages in Scripture, such as “Let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:24)? This appears to contradict the idea that Christianity views the sexes as equal. Pope John Paul II’s answer was:
The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious traditions of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (Mulieris Dignitatem 24; cf. Eph. 5:21).
Discussing the bond of marriage as it exists after the taint of original sin, John Paul states:
The matrimonial union requires respect for and perfection of the true personal subjectivity of both of them. The woman cannot be made the object of dominion and male possession (MD 10).
That husband and wife are to be subject to one another is reinforced in the next verse of the original passage cited: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This injunction transforms the potentially selfish orientation of male love into a form of intense self-sacrificial service. Subordination is mutual, but the admonition is given to husbands, perhaps because they need it more. What is implied, then, is not general female inferiority but general female superiority in the order that most matters eschatologically—the order of charity.
It’s Not about Power
The reservation of priestly ordination to men is perhaps the sorest spot among contemporary critics of the Catholic Church’s treatment of women. Many people understandably believe that the Church feels that women are less holy, less intellectually capable, less pastorally sensitive, or less capable of leadership than men. It is true that medieval theologians defended male priestly ordination with just such arguments, but the reservation in and of itself does not imply the inferiority of women. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls, Christ himself established what constitutes the sacraments. The Church, in obedience to the Lord, is free only to follow what Christ has ordained.
Baptism must make use of water and not sand. This does not imply that sand is in and of itself less than water; indeed, those lost at sea need sand much more than they need water. The Eucharist must make use of bread and wine and not sausage and beer, even in Germany, where presumably those celebrating the Eucharist would prefer a meal of sausage and beer to one of bread and wine. Similarly, the Church teaches that Christ established that the proper recipient of the sacrament of holy orders is a baptized male; similarly, this in no way implies that men are better than women. The teaching itself does not imply in any way inferiority on the part of women.
Some theologians have even speculated that one reason for the reservation of priestly orders to males could be that men are typically worse people than women. Most murderers, rapists, thieves, and scoundrels of the highest order are men. It is, therefore, men and not women who are in particular need of models of self-sacrificial service and love. A priest is one who gives sacrifice, and the sacrifice is not only something he does but something he is:
We who have received the sacrament of orders call ourselves “priests.” The author does not recall any priest ever having said that “I was ordained a victim.” And yet, was not Christ the Priest, a Victim? Did he not come to die? He did not offer a lamb, a bullock, or doves; he never offered anything except himself. “He gave himself up on our behalf, a sacrifice breathing out a fragrance as he offered it to God” (Eph. 5:2). . . . So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of his Incarnation (Fulton J. Sheen, The Priest Is Not His Own, McGraw-Hill, 2).
The priesthood is misconstrued in terms of domination, power, and exultation; it is properly understood in terms of service, love, and sacrifice, and there are more than enough opportunities for both men and women to exercise these offices outside of the priesthood.
Full and Active Participation
It is almost always assumed by advocates of women’s ordination that the “full and active participation” in the Church called for by the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14) requires priestly ordination. The view that only priests are called to holiness or to important roles or to “full and active” participation in the Church is often called clericalism, an idea rejected by the Council. The lay person can participate actively and fully in the Church—as a lay person. The Spirit bestows different gifts on different people. As the first letter to the Corinthians indicates, just as the human body has different members and each member a different purpose, so, too, the various parts of the body of Christ—successors to the apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, helpers, administrators—are all essential, valuable, and vital (cf. 1 Cor. 12:4–30).
The clericalist view implies that Mother Teresa, St. Thomas More, St. Francis of Assisi, and the Virgin Mary did not fully participate in the Church because they were not priests.
Of course, the ordination question is much more complicated and involved. But having read the literature extensively, I know of no argument in any contemporary source defending the reservation of priestly ordination to men that invokes the idea that men are better, holier, smarter, more worthy, more pastorally sensitive, or superior in any talent to women. I have also never read a critique of the Church’s teaching that did not explicitly or implicitly rely on clericalist assumptions.
The myth of Catholic misogyny is well addressed in terms of the practical care the Church offers to women (and men) throughout the world. Has any institution educated more women? Fed more women? Clothed more women? Rescued more female infants from death? Offered more assistance or medical care to mothers and their born and unborn children? Members of the Church have undoubtedly behaved badly, but no less have members of the Church undoubtedly behaved well, heroically well. When they have done so, they have been even more fully incorporated into the mystical body of Christ whose Head came to serve all, love all, and save all, and in whose image—as God—he created both male and female.