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Does the Church Oppress Women? An Appreciation of the Feminine Genius

Not only has the Church never oppressed women, but it has also freed them through their innate "genius" to find and live out their true selves.

Here’s a criticism we hear all the time in one form or another: the Church has oppressed women throughout history—and continues to do so. When I say I think it’s the right moment to pay attention to women in a particular way, I’m only echoing the prophetic voice of the Church itself. Pope Paul VI, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, wrote these words:

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender, and accessible. Make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes, and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world (Address to Women, 1965).

But it was his successor Pope St. John Paul II who most promoted women when he said, “Woman has a genius all her own, which is vitally essential to both society and the Church” (Angelus address of July 23, 1995, 2). I’m convinced that part of the reason we have barely made a dent in the New Evangelization is because we have a long way to go when it comes to the recognition not only of women’s dignity but of their feminine genius.

I would like to structure this article in the way St. Thomas Aquinas structured his Summa Theologica: by offering objections to our question and then answering those objections. So, the question I pose is regarding women, and the article is, “Does the Catholic Church oppress women?” We will answer it in a series of three objections.

Objection 1
“It would seem the Catholic Church does oppress women because it doesn’t allow women to be priests.”

On the contrary, I answer that women are already priests, as are all members of God’s priestly people. This isn’t a profound philosophical or theological point, but it has worked with a lot of my secular friends when they ask about this objection. In fact, by not allowing women priests, the Church is woman’s great liberator and allows women to become truly themselves.

I’ve also tried theology, but the only approach that has really worked is to ask: do women really need more to do? If the heart of priesthood is sacrifice, can we not say that, both in body and soul, through biological and spiritual motherhood, women are experts at sacrifice? This is not a question of the priesthood to which all the baptized are called but a question of the ministerial priesthood to which women are not called—and, frankly, to which most men also are not called. This is the point of a vocation, the root word of vocation being vocare, “to call.” God must call you, and you must be granted permission through the discernment of the Church to pursue that call.

A vocation isn’t to be seized or grasped at, because the decision for an exclusively male priesthood was made through the wisdom of Our Lord, as John Paul II rightly says: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination of women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4). But he also writes:

Non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. The presence and the role of women in life and in the mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remains absolutely necessary and absolutely irreplaceable. As the declaration Inter Insigniores points out, “The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission; today their role is of capital importance, both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 3).

The greatest creature is a woman, the blessed Virgin Mary. She was born without original sin and is literally the mother of God and the greatest disciple of Jesus. With power like that, I doubt she concerned herself with becoming an ordained minister.

And what about Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection? She was the first evangelist of the gospel. So privileged is her place in history that she is celebrated liturgically just like the rest of the apostles. She’s given the title by the Church, which Aquinas gave her first, Apostolorum Apostola, “the apostle to the apostles.” She tells them, “He has risen. I have seen the Lord.” She tells them what they will in turn
tell the whole world.

The earliest and the first followers and converts to the Church were women. Women were such a majority in the early Church that one Roman emperor believed that the Christian movement was a women’s movement. Jesus and his Church dignified women, who in the time of the early Church had zero legal rights; who were considered the property of their fathers, the property of their husbands; women whose husbands could commit matricide; women who were immersed in a culture of infanticide and abortion, mainly of girl babies.

I think it’s a privilege to be a Catholic woman. Catholic women enjoy the privilege of knowing they have dignity because Jesus has revealed it to them through the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Objection 2
“It would seem that the Catholic Church does oppress women because it is opposed to the feminist movement, which has gained women civil equality.”

On the contrary, the Catholic Church is not opposed to the feminist movement insofar as the movement respects woman’s nature and dignity. John Paul II supported first-wave feminism but opposed the second- and third-wave versions. Here’s what he wrote:

My word of thanks to women thus becomes a heartfelt appeal that everyone in a special way states international institutions should make every effort to ensure that women regain full respect for their dignity and role. Here I cannot fail to express my admiration for these women of goodwill who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood by fighting for their basic social, economic, and political rights, demonstrating courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin! (Letter to Women, 6).

The first wave of feminism started in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The key players were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The key issues were voting rights, property ownership, and educational opportunities. First-wave feminists opposed abortion. They promoted traditional marriage and motherhood, everything we would say is in line with Catholic social teaching today.

Things, of course, got problematic with second- and third-wave feminism. The former started in the post-World War II era. The key players were Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. These women denied the good of marriage, they supported contraception, they supported abortion, and they supported promiscuity. Third-wave feminism started in the late 1980s into the ’90s, and the key issue was gender ideology.

It’s obvious the Church had to withdraw its support for these latter stages of the feminist movement precisely because they’re anti-woman. Although he affirms what we now categorize as first-wave feminism, John Paul II calls for a new feminism to replace the second and third waves, since they are clearly not authentic expressions of the feminine genius. Here is a key excerpt from the document:

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and in action which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a new feminism which rejects the temptation of imitating models of male domination in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation (Evangelium Vitae, 99).

Objection 3
“It would seem that the Catholic Church does oppress women because it has treated its female members unjustly and therefore prevented them from reaching their full potential as human beings.”

On the contrary, it is not the Church per se that has harmed women, but its sinful members have at times, causing great scandal.

I answer that this is a fallen world, but the Church is the one place where women can become truly themselves through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Again, this is John Paul II, apologizing to women:

I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough. Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which 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 which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting. And if objective blame, 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 which 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 which 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).

For any woman who has experienced an injustice within the Church precisely because she’s a woman, let’s follow John Paul II’s example and in all humility apologize.

Despite the obstacles placed before women, whether coming from sinners within the Church or from without, the Church still has the ability to generate women who are truly themselves, which is what sanctity is all about. We all are aware of what the Catholic Church has done in terms of women founding schools, hospitals, monasteries, and religious orders. Without the cooperation and innovation and creative genius of women, many of these things would not have happened.

The way forward

The secular world isn’t wrong when it proclaims, “The future is female.” But the future is female insofar as the future is Marian. Therefore, I propose three action items.

One, listen to women. One of my favorite stories is of Pope Leo XIII and Bl. Elena Guerra (1835-1914). She was a contemplative Italian nun, and she wrote a series of letters to the pope requesting in no uncertain terms renewed devotion to the Holy Spirit. Being the good, holy listener that he was, Pope Leo wrote an apostolic letter and later an encyclical encouraging the faithful to celebrate a solemn novena to the Holy Spirit between the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost for the intention of Christian unity. And don’t forget the story of Catherine of Siena; her influence with Pope Gregory XI played a key role in his leaving Avignon for Rome in 1376.

These stories exemplify a beautiful complementarity: these secluded nuns communicating with the pope, the head of the universal Church, and the popes obliging them.

Two, read Church documents on the feminine genius. I interviewed a man, a great Catholic husband and father, who told me that until he read Mulieris Dignitatem and John Paul II’s document on women, he was still having a spirit of competition with his wife. Reading that document helped him see her as a partner and not as a competitor.

“John Paul didn’t write this document for women,” he told me. “He wrote it for men to read.”

Three, men need to take their own emotional health seriously to keep women healthy. And this means that economic systems should keep women, children, and family in mind. This is of course what John Paul II wrote about in Evangelium Vitae (94). Here’s one expression of this aspect of his thought: Communities and states must guarantee all the support, including economic support, which families need in order to meet their problems in a truly human way. For its part, the Church must untiringly promote a plan of pastoral care for families, capable of making every family rediscover and live with joy and courage its mission to further the Gospel of life.

What he’s saying from a Catholic worldview is something that secular trauma-informed physicians are saying from the scientific point of view. Gabo Maté, a Canadian doctor with expertise in trauma, addiction, and stress says, “Women are more chronically ill. For every one man who’s chronically ill, there are three women who are chronically ill.” Why? He says, “Because women are society’s shock absorbers.”

What Maté is saying from a secular, scientific point of view, John Paul II is saying from a Catholic point of view. He’s saying economic systems should be set up so that women who are mothers shouldn’t be punished for being mothers. For working women, work should be designed to support motherhood. Women who want to stay at home with their children also should not be punished economically.

As laypeople, we must be salt and light; we are called to not just stay in our cozy Church circles but to go out and propose the gospel in this way. I love this quote from Flannery O’Connor: “You have to suffer as much from the Church as for her, but somehow this is the body of Christ, and this is where I’m fed.”

Does the Church oppress women? I think our discussion here shows that the answer is an emphatic no.

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