From the outside, I can understand how Catholicism may appear to alienate women. With no women priests, a clear opposition to abortion and contraception, and Bible verses taken out of context, Catholicism generally receives a bad rap for its apparent lack of respect for women’s gifts and abilities. As a young Catholic woman, who is asked to write timely articles for The Cauldron, I felt there was no better time than Women’s History Month to address these misconceptions.
One of the strongest arguments against Catholicism forcing women to be subordinate is to look back at history itself. People of almost every faith, religion, ethnicity, and culture- including some Catholics- generally saw women as weaker and enforced various rules on women that men were not subject to.
This was true until Jesus Christ, the Son of God, invited women to be equals. In his Letter to Women 3, Pope John Paul II further explains, “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.”
Further, many women in the Bible played significant roles in the whole of salvation history, including in the Old Testament. God trusted His only son, Jesus Christ, in the hands of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whom the Church teaches was free from all sin.
Mary Magdalene was an entirely separate woman from Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene, and she became a devoted follower of Jesus. Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion, saw Christ dead in the tomb, and was the first recorded witness of the empty tomb and the Resurrection. She was also known as the “apostle to the apostles.” Jesus even appears to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. God trusts Mary Magdalene to share His Gospel message and beliefs, even though the testimony of a woman was not accepted in a court of law at the time.
Aquila and his wife Priscilla each corrected Apollos in his teaching in the book of Acts, and St. Paul exalts unmarried women in 1 Corinthians. Women have played significant roles throughout the history of the Catholic faith, and the Gospel calls us to believe in women.
It would be wrong- inherently false- to argue that all Catholics have always treated women with the dignity they deserve. There are undeniably Catholics- whether laypeople, theologians, or Church leaders- who have underutilized women and made misogynistic comments.
One common denominator is that each person who has participated in any of these mistreatments of women is a sinner. None of us are perfect, and as much as we can try to imitate Jesus, we will fall short of Jesus’ perfection- including in the treatment of women. As Catholics, we are called to repent of our sins and try again, with the intent of doing better and being more Christ-like. Women are not called to be subordinate, and we are not called to be complacent in the mistreatment of women.
It is important to acknowledge that men and women have different gifts and skills that work together. They were created for complementary tasks and purposes.
On average, men have a higher percentage of muscle than women, indicating that most men are more suited for physical labor than women. Wider hips and extra storage of fat prepare women’s bodies for carrying children. In natural biology, the bodies of women provide the egg while the bodies of men provide the sperm. Natural reproduction cannot happen without one man and one woman; the two halves come together to make one whole. These physical differences are innate to men and women, and they are differences that should be celebrated rather than erased.
The Catholic Church does not ordain women to the priesthood. One reason behind not having women priests is that the apostles of Jesus were all men. Jesus Christ treated men and women with dignity and equality, and His apostles were all men. Though these statements may seem to create a paradox, both are true and not contradictory.
Women bring children into the world, while men do not have this privilege. Priests bring the body of Christ into the world (through the Eucharist), while women do not have this privilege. Men and women were granted different gifts by God’s design. Further, as we are now two thousand years after Christ lived, no authority on earth can change the designs of the Church that Jesus established.
I believe it is important to acknowledge the difference between priests and preachers. Laypeople, those who are members of the Church but not ordained, are forbidden from preaching the sermon during mass- men and women alike. Only priests and deacons can preach the sermons during mass. Mass is the time when Catholics gather for sacred worship, and priests and deacons have a unique consecration and mission through their ordination that laypeople do not have. Laypeople, including women, are allowed to preach, just not during the sermon.
Father Philip Bernier, the priest at St. Peter Parish in Cleveland, explained, “Ministry is a call to service, not to power. The church has many ways in which women have been called to the Church for centuries and are being called in greater numbers today.”
Father Phil explained that women established communities of women (nuns) who committed their lives to serving by educating, providing healthcare, and other social systems. Nuns have been teaching women to succeed in the greater limits of society for hundreds of years, including by establishing some of the first colleges and universities for women in the United States.
Abortion and Contraception
“Natural law” is based on human nature as rational beings, not irrational beings such as animals; natural law is a moral law. Contraception stands against this natural law and against the design God has for the human race. The purpose of sex is procreation (pleasure is an additional blessing from God), and contraception violates this purpose. Similarly, any attempt at destroying fetal life is a violation of natural law. The early Church Fathers also agree that abortion is not acceptable within the teachings of the Catholic faith.
Contrary to popular belief, Catholics strive to provide for those in need. The Catholic Church has rescued countless unborn children, girls and boys alike, providing assistance to mothers before and after the birth of the child. The Catholic Church educates, clothes, and feeds women (and men). Though the Catholic Church has not acted perfectly, Catholics strive to provide for and protect women.
Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands,” though the words could be slightly different among different translations. No matter how it is translated, when this verse is taken at face value, it does not appear that women and men are equal. However, taking the verse alone ignores the context. Even if one looks at the surrounding verses, the context speaks for itself in Ephesians 5:21-25:
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the savior of the body. As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over to her.”
The call for husbands to love their wives in itself was a radical cultural change. It was a call for women to be treated as worthy of love, respect, and honor, instead of the wider societal belief that women should be treated as property. The sense of equality for husbands and wives was a central issue for the Church.
In the picture of husbands being heads of the household, women can be seen as the body. One cannot exist without the other; each has its own unique role. Catholicism embraces the roles men and women have, especially when one can perform a role that another cannot, such as a priest or mother. Catholics are also called to provide for those in need, including mothers and children, from their conception until natural death. While Catholics do not always treat women with the dignity they deserve, treating women- and all lives- with such dignity is what we are called to do.
Disclaimer: This article in no way reflects the views of The Cauldron and its staff. It only reflects the views of the columnist.