Let’s face it. Our Catholic leaders have done a horrible job at defending the Church in the modern world. While the same accusations continue to be made—that the Church is “outdated,” “patriarchal,” “anti-woman,” “homophobic,” “run by men” “sexist,” and so on—the response by our Catholic leaders has largely been silence (Or, if a response is given, the answers tend to be long-winded, and unconvincing). This does a great disservice to the people of God, because it fails to equip them to engage the world at large, which is the priest’s duty, by his very office, to do.
The people of God have a right to the truth—not a muddled truth, but an articulate, loud, clear, and concise truth, so that these myths can be put to rest.
So lets see what we can do about this here.
We’ve all heard this line before: “The Church is anti-woman.” And we know it is wrong, but we don’t quite know how to respond effectively. Fortunately, having a fascination with Church history has its benefits. And through the years, I have been lucky enough to pick up some compelling nuggets along the way to help debunk this myth. I will now list them here, to help arm the reader with the proper ammunition to respond to this misconception effectively;
1. The revolution of Christianity: “All men are created equal.” First of all, the very idea that women are equal to men came from Christianity itself. People don’t realize this but we now live in a civilization that is largely built upon Christian values. We unquestionably accept today that “all men are created equal,” but few realize that this idea actually dates back before the Declaration of Independence, to Christ Himself. And this is what made Christianity so revolutionary in the first century. Prior to Christ’s coming, women were universally regarded as inferior beings. Early Roman law, for example, described women as “children,” forever inferior to men. Similarly, ancient Greek law did not afford women any legal status or protection. They were often considered a kind of non-citizen, not unlike that of a slave. But when Jesus came, He shocked the world by teaching a doctrine of equal dignity to all, a doctrine that broke down all division between peoples, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). His doctrine thus became the groundwork for the development of modern civilization, a civilization where men and women share equal status, which we now enjoy today. As Thomas Cahill writes;
“Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and equally precious to him, ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupon of social dignity or political importance.” (Thomas Cahill, “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, 44)
2. Most early converts to Christianity were women. A little known fact. Christianity was viewed by the Romans as weak religion, a religion for women and for the lower classes. We actually have ancient fragments by the Romans mocking Christianity on this very point. For example, one Roman citizen once wrote, “It is only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the ‘divine word’ [Christians] wish to make converts.” (Celsus, quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, 3.49) And indeed, women tended to gravitate to Christianity and accepted its doctrine more easily than men. While many men were busying themselves with politics, women were raising their children in the faith (and teaching their slaves as well), forming the next generation of citizens. And in just two generations, Christianity swept through the Roman Empire like wildfire (from about 318 A.D. to 380 A.D.), expanding from a once persecuted band of “rebels,” to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.
3. Christians ended polygamy and infanticide/gendercide. Since women were regarded as inferior beings, they were often the victims of graves injustices, which Catholic-Christianity has fought throughout history. For example, female babies were not desirable in ancient Rome. When a newborn was presented to the father for acceptance into the family, the father would often reject it if it was a female. The baby would then be abandoned, left in the forest to be eaten by animals (this practice was called “exposing” one’s children). The Christians would then rescue these babies and raise them themselves. It did not matter to Christians whether the child was a female or a deformed male. All that mattered was that it was a child of God.
4. Catholic clergy popularized the idea of Chivalry to combat Barbarism. This one shocked me. The first millennia of Christianity was beset by constant violence. First there was the continual threat of barbarian tribes, who would invade and pillage cities almost at random. Then in the 7th century came the rise of Islam, which also spread by the violence of the sword. No region of the West was safe. So cities, regions, and kings would often have to defend themselves from these threats. Part of their defense was to dress men in armor and put them on horses (these came known as knights).
Prior to the 11th century, knights were just seen as warriors on horses, with no code of honor of their own. And in fact, they would sometimes succumb to the same violent habits as their opponents (pillaging, raping, looting, etc.), in retaliation against the continual invasions.
Now enter the Catholic clergy. They wanted to hold these warriors to a higher standard, and so they popularized the idea of a chivalric code, where honor, integrity, and respect for women became the norm. Thus was born the “knight,” the noble warrior with a code of honor light-years ahead of its time. (I bet you never saw this in the movies. Instead, you often see corrupt clergy whispering nefarious advice into the ears of kings—where, in reality, the very opposite was true.). And to this very day, shadows of this legacy have endured, such as holding the door open for women, or standing up when a woman enters the room.
5. In the Catholic Church, headship equals servitude. The higher one is in ecclesial authority, the more of a servant one becomes. This is an important paradigm to remember, because our world cannot seem to understand this. They see a hierarchy in the Church, and they immediately think of power which they don’t have. But priests and bishops really do not have any power of their own, but in fact resemble more of a slave, bound as they are to serve the people of God. One of the titles of the pope, in fact, is “The Servant of the Servants of God.” He is highest only in the visible order. But in reality, he is the lowest, because he is a slave to all; it is for the people of God that our shepherds labor (or ought to). The Church is not patriarchal. She is bride. And priests and bishops are wed to her. In other words, the male hierarchy of the Church exists to serve the feminine.
The same can also be said within the family as well. The fact that the man is given headship is not something to boast about. The man in fact has a greater duty to serve and love because of that position. While Scripture says that wives ought to obey their husbands, it then immediately tells husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the Church and died for her. So men are called to be crucified for their wives. Which one sounds more daunting a mission? Obedience and respect, or love and crucifixion? I don’t know about you, but I am not exactly excited about the idea of being crucified. And yet, this is our calling as men, regardless of our vocation. And what women would not want to respect and obey a husband who sacrifices himself for her, who drags himself face down in the dust for her? But modern feminism rejects this. What it essentially says to man, is “I will not let you serve me.” It rejects the very men who try to uphold woman’s dignity. “Do not open the door for me. Do not stand up when I enter the room.” It is as if to say, “I do not want your love or your sacrifice.”
6. The Church teaches authentic feminism. “You’re not equal to men unless your out there doing what men do.” This, in a nutshell, is the message of modern feminism. It disregards the unique gifts that women have, her “feminine genius”—to use pope John Paul II’s term—and instead forces women to try to prove themselves in areas that men tend to gravitate to, like business, politics, sports, and military service. Especially in Hollywood, women are often depicted in dominant positions, always needing to prove themselves—thus making women appear weak and insecure. It has the opposite effect as intended.
As in the 2003 Julia Roberts movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” women who choose to stay at home—who choose to put their family first—are portrayed as a waste of good talent. This mindset no doubt is driven by our American Utilitarian worldview, which tends to measure self-worth by what you do, not who you are. To put it very plainly, modern feminism judges women by men’s standards (or rather, where men tend to place value), i.e., you are only valuable if you are doing something useful. Granted, women have come a long way in the past few decades. But it is imperfect progress. Rather than capitulate to the standards of the world, authentic feminism ought to redefine the standards.
This is precisely what the Church does. Rather than downplaying the differences between men and women, the Church instead highlights those differences, to show the unique gifts that each sex brings to the other. Pope John Paul II spoke about this extensively in this Theology of the Body—about the wonderful complimentary between the sexes. He spoke about the feminine genius of women, and their strengths of compassion, empathy, intuition, nurturing, interpersonal skills. There in fact is a whole theology of woman, and what it means to be feminine. Even a woman’s own body, as pope John Paul II notes, speaks a language of openness and receptivity, which teaches humanity about our very relationship with God, and that our receptivity is to bear fruit and be life-giving (It in other words, teaches us about love). Authentic feminism should not be a rejection of these strengths, but rather, a celebration of them. Women possess great power and influence over the world, not only in the formation of the next generation of souls, but also in her influence on men, to raise them up or tear them down. Women have an uncanny ability to inspire greatness in others; and it doesn’t require great works or eloquent speeches. A woman who is secure in her femininity does not have to do much to edify and inspire others; a gentle gaze, a modest demeanor, a word of comfort, a dignified deportment, all communicate holiness in ways that nothing else can.
7. The most perfect person in all creation was a stay-at-home mother. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was the greatest being ever to have been created, greater than all the other saints combined. The term for this special veneration is called hyperdulia, which is different than the ordinary veneration we give to the saints (dulia)—neither of which is worship, which is due to God alone (latria). The Church’s love and honor for Mary has been a cornerstone of the faith ever since the time of the Apostles, and she remains a model and example of all the feminine gifts in their perfection. She is a testament to the splendor of motherhood, which modern feminism sees more as a burden than a glory.
In the eyes of the world, Mary didn’t do all that much. She stayed home and lived a relatively secluded life of prayer. And yet, in her holiness, she did everything. Scripture says “the prayer of a righteous man available much.” Mary was holier than all the rest of humanity put together, and so her prayers were capable of moving mountains. As some of the saints have written, God cannot deny a request of Mary. It is as if He bends to her every wish. God has indeed given us a great gift in Mary; she is our greatest advocate in heaven.
8. The Catholic Church opposes contraception. It is important to stress how anti-woman contraception really is (not just because it was invented by men). Let us remember that the marital union has two basic purposes; it is unitive and procreative. Contraception eliminates the latter component, because it closes the couple off to life. This disfigures the marital union to such an extent, says pope John Paul II, that it no longer is ordered toward love, but rather, toward its very opposite. As the pope explains in his masterful “Love and Responsibility,” the opposite of love is not hate–as most tend to believe—but “use” (I can elaborate on this in a later article). It is to use another person for one’s own end. Contraception opens this door wide open. It reduces the marital union to an act for mere pleasure, to put it crudely, “mutual masturbation.” And who loses in this contract? Who is more likely to become the victim? Women. Women are, because men, by their fallen nature, are more prone to “dominate” women (to use the word of Genesis), to use women for sexual pleasure. Thus women unknowingly become victims of their own design. Contraception is, in fact, the single greatest guarantee that a marriage will end in divorce, even more than pre-marital cohabitation. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has continued to be the voice of reason in the world, consistently opposing contraception throughout history, and thus standing up for women’s right in a profound way.
9. The Catholic Church opposes abortion. If contraception is like a slow poison the gradually erodes and destroys over time, abortion is like a sudden and violent explosion. Not only is it the single greatest human injustice of our time (It would require ten Hitlers to cause the same about of destruction to human life as abortion has), but it is also the single greatest abuse of women in our time, because it compels her, often under pressure and duress, to make a “choice” that she doesn’t want to make. And then she has to deal with its repercussions for the rest of her life (and much reparation). Because remember, abortion is the legalized murder of innocent children by their own mothers. It strikes the very heart of the deepest human relationship on earth, the mother-child bond. The consequences of such a violent action is thus compounded, not only through the death of the bodies of innocent children, but through the silent death of women’s souls. One in four women in America will have an abortion in their life. This means that one in four women will have committed an act murder, a sin which has devastating emotional and spiritual consequences to the soul. Even if a woman does repent of the sin, she will forever have to deal with its consequences. And those who do not repent—which are many—are propelled further down a spiral of darkness, depression, and despair. We can thus say without exaggeration, abortion is in fact the greatest threat to the soul of our country, because it is the greatest destroyer and abuser of women to date.
Thus I hope with these few points, the reader will understand more deeply just how pro-woman the Church really is. Although there are more points we could cite that show the central place of women in the Church—such as the founding of the hospital system as we know it, the founding of charities and volunteerism, and the many female doctors the Church has named—I think this should suffice to help give the reader more evidence to confidently engage the world on this issue.