Church, Culture, and the Dignity of the Sexes

During the Thanksgiving holiday I was asked, in a nutshell, if I felt constricted as a woman by the Catholic faith (and more specifically the Vatican). It was a lovely discussion. Since then, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of articles that discuss gender identity, feminism, and how much the Church loves to subjugate the ladies. Maybe it’s my subconscious still mulling over that Thanksgiving conversation, but I can’t get away from the topic. There’s an interesting gem on SkepticInc that says the Church uses the same argument against the marriage equality movement as the woman suffrage movement of the early 20th century. Basically, both movements will negatively impact society and harm children by taking something far out of it’s natural context. Just today I found this delight from the Huffington Post on my Flipboard news selection. The gist, from the compilation of quotes, is that anything feminine that is healthy is labeled “mother” and fertile; it’s unhealthy opposite is cranky and unproductive. Therefore, the automatic conclusion is that women must be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen to be happy and productive. This conclusion is spoon-fed by one quoted question: “Do you see a bit of misogyny in the background (of your references to women mainly as mothers and wives rather than leaders)?”

Is it easy to find misogynist opinions in Church history? Absolutely. Does the Church encourage and teach misogyny? Absolutely not. The Church understands the sexes anthropologically, that is, as a way of being that transcends time and culture. The wording that is often used–mother, fertile, subordinate, what have you–sounds awkward and archaic to our modern ears, but they are used with a specific purpose and a specific context in mind. Not many people, especially those in the media, take the time to understand what the sexes mean in larger context of Christian revelation. To be sure, it wasn’t until Vatican II that the Church Herself began to address the subject of the sexes without a certain amount of pubescent awkwardness. But this awkwardness should not be confused with doctrinal discrimination against the dignity of women outside of a narrow identity. That kind of discrimination properly belongs to cultural mores. The Church’s mission is to translate timeless Truth to every time and culture. Many times the distinction between what the Church teaches and what culture teaches gets blurry. Take St. Paul, for instance. That good soul is the perfect storm of Church and culture. He spoke of women’s dignity in a narrow context, but he does not say that women lack dignity in any other context.

For the sake of brevity, let’s agree that the Church, the Graeco-Roman empire, and the emerging nations of Christendom all share the perspective that women are important in the domestic sphere and the propagation of the species (and, by extension, the faith, wealth, and status of the patrimonial line). While sometimes coasting along with cultural norms, the Church deviates significantly from culture on many occasions, right from the beginning. First, Jesus flat-out rejects all forms of discrimination in Galatians 3:28. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. Yes, this is Paul preaching, but it is exactly what Jesus practiced. Neither Samaritans, nor Gentiles, nor women received less from Jesus than the Chosen Ones of Israel.

Women especially had a powerful role in the New Testament. All of them, no matter what their circumstances, are held up as examples of how to do things right. None of the women are materially, socially, or physically powerful, but by lifting them up as examples of goodness, Jesus is telling us all to follow them. The New Testament women lead us to Christ, even though they are culturally “inferior” to men. Rather than interpreting this to mean women can only lead others to Christ through domestic servitude and babies, the early Church took the unprecedented step of liberating women from the cultural constraints surrounding marriage. The Church made it possible, and acceptable, for women to marry whom they wish (rather than be matched with a socio-economic peer). Even more, the Church removed the stigma of unwed women. The rise of the religious life became equal to, if not greater than, the state of marriage for women. Make no mistake, this shift was seen as freedom for women. Women were persons worthy to offer their entire selves to Christ and serve Him unreservedly, if that was their desire. Eventually devotion to the religious life became a culturally chić thing to do for women, a prestige symbol for wealthy families. This trend embroiled the religious orders in worldly drama more often than was welcomed.

It is a sad fact that for the large majority of sainted women who lived while Christianity ruled the Empire, money paid for the freedom to express a richer understanding of feminine dignity. Money opened doors, but women like Elizabeth of Hungary, Irene the Athenian, and Catherine of Siena proved on their own merits that the fairer sex could hold their own outside of the domestic sphere as well as in it. Fast-forwarding to modern times, women like Elizabeth of Hungary and Irene the Athenian are common. Elizabeth is represented by women like Gail J. McGovern, who is the CEO of the Red Cross, and no one represents Irene the Athenian better than Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

The comparisons are not adequate, however, because these modern women are products of a series of cultural shifts that specifically addressed gender inequality. After the 17th century science began dissecting everything it could to understand the functionality of organisms. Organisms became mechanisms. Applied to humans, gender became a mechanism that culture could use to reinforce old biases. You know, the ones like women are more fragile and emotional because they have a smaller frame, their brains don’t process logic, or they bleed more than anything else in nature without dying. Here is an amusing example of the practical application of science-based gender studies (warning: some graphic content) that was wildly popular around the turn of the 20th century. The Church, bruised by the Reformation and discarded by the Enlightenment, took no part in the industrialization of the human person. In fact, it is just a few decades before the 20th century when the Church began producing writings that specifically address social inequality.

Cultural gender discrimination, backed by “science,” directly resulted in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900’s. Economic equality under US law followed not long after. World War II launched women into the workforce, and the Sexual Revolution ostensibly removed patriarchal domination of women’s sexuality. All of these are good. Women have the right to speak up for themselves and own property. Women certainly have the right to their own body. These advancements in the cultural understanding of gender equality, while good in and of themselves, are specific responses to a deficient understanding of only one aspect of womanhood. Advancement in women’s rights, frankly, has centered around lady-parts. A woman’s biological ability to produce other humans is seen as the shakle that confines feminine freedom. Men used it as an excuse to keep women “in their place,” and women saw it as a constricting identity. To some extent, women were right. Because of the ability to reproduce, women were being denied the chance to earn fair wages, advance in a career, and have equality under the law.

It seems to me that this is why there is so much malcontent towards terminology that seems to rattle the old shakles. From a cultural perspective, feminism is the drive to ensure that gender is never again used as a tool for oppression. Women can, and are, rejecting old stereotypes and redefining what it means to be a woman. The problem is that this cultural process is still oppressive, because gender is still the definitive mechanism for humanity. Traits are designated with a sex, male or female, to organize human function. Nurturing? Classically feminine. Powerful? Classically masculine. Emotional? Definitely feminine. We are in the cultural process of removing stigmas of sexes with gender-opposite traits–yes, men can be amazing nurturers! Women can run businesses well! These traits have never been dependent on gender, however. At least not in the cosmic sense of things. And that is why culture will always be oppressive in its attempts to balance the sexes. For culture, gender balance means moving in tandem. All eyes forward, steps in sync with one another.

The cosmic sense of things is knowing the purpose of your mechanisms. What is the endgame of the sexes? Why does gender matter? This is what the Church considers. As I mentioned earlier, everyone’s endgame is to enter the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. That door does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It only discriminates against those who try to enter around the door rather than through it. Since gender is not a determining factor in salvation, why does the Church continue to profess the feminine genius in culturally oppressive terms and sound like bleating old goats? Well, the answer is simple: the Church does not stereotype “feminine” traits like compassion and meekness or relegate womanhood to the confines of biological motherhood. In contrast to cultural mores, the Church only expects physical traits to be gender-specific.

In Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), a progressive sense of feminine dignity is laid out, followed by strong praise of the traditional roles of women as mothers and teachers. Rather than being misogynistic, encouraging women to embrace roles as mothers and teachers is a tacit acknowledgement of certain mechanisms that exist in women, in a special way, that aids in the biological ability to bear and raise children. Men are not excluded from having these mechanisms, but they are generally stronger in women. Scientific research tends to support this, though the issue remains open to debate. This is but one aspect of the overarching theology of sex in the cosmic scheme. The sexes, as the Church understands it, are not meant to balance each other, walking side by side into the sunset. They are made to tango, circling and supporting each other as if they were one body. Technically known as complementarity, this theology understands two kinds of dignity that are proper to men and women: the shared dignity of a united existence, reflecting the Trinity, and the unique dignity of each sex that is revealed by the proximity of one to the other.

In other words, complementarity says three things. One, all human share a pool of traits that are distinct to human dignity, or what it means to be human. Two, men and women use the same traits, but not always in the same way. Three, the “male” way and “female” way of exhibiting the same traits are a necessary good that reveals what it fully means to be human. It’s not an insult to say that men and women naturally do things differently. It’s quite the opposite, and for at least one good and simple reason. Let’s pretend that all men think the best way to settle an argument is by a gunfight. If there is no other option offered to settle an argument, eventually the pool of people to argue with is going to be very small. This is a gross exaggeration, but you get the idea.

This is why, at that Thanksgiving discussion, I did not hesitate to defend the Church against institutional misogyny. The Church doesn’t encourage me to be a size 0 with D cups. The Church doesn’t care if I show off pasty legs in the summer. The Church doesn’t shame me for not having the right house, or car, or purse, or kids that eat all their vegetables (any vegetables?). The Church doesn’t judge me based on whether I breast-or bottle-fed my babies, homeschooled, or voted Republican. Or Democrat. The Church doesn’t respect me less if I’m a maid or a CEO. But culture does. Culture praises and condemns me on the basis of its whims. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is true misogyny.

3 thoughts on “Church, Culture, and the Dignity of the Sexes

  1. You made some good points here. I will admit to not having your extended knowledge and experience with the Catholic Church. After 50+ years involved in Protestant religions I have seen quite a bit of cultural influence that has changed women’s roles in religious practices for the good. No longer are we relegated to the kitchen committee, the Deaconess Board, or as Sunday School teacher. While these are important roles, it is encouraging to see that women now serve as voting members of Deacon Boards, Staff-Parish Committees, as well as ministers, and other positions that influence entire congregations. Organized religions that encourage women in roles of influence and power have recognized they are better for it. IMO, the Catholic Church does honor the women who practice their faith. Our culture also honors those women who choose to be nuns, and certainly see the influence in those such as Mother Theresa. However, if they truly respect a woman’s rights to choose their own path to God, why can’t a woman choose the path of Priest, or Bishop, or Cardinal, or (dare I say it?), Pope? Would not the Church benefit? Would not the Catholic faith itself, embrace and grow as a result? Yes, many cultural influences are negative, but in this case, the cultural practice of including women in all aspects of their journey to God should be embraced by all.

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    1. The issue of women in positions of “religious power,” such as the priesthood and in influential councils is a byproduct of the cultural push toward corporate equality. This push is not a bad thing, but when applied to the Church the corporate mentality only takes you so far. I agree that it is wonderful to finally see women who are on important boards and councils–churches indeed will benefit from this trend. But the position of priest has no corporate equivalent, because it is a purely religious office, one that is based on fundamental theology.
      To a certain extent every member of the Church is a priest. Baptism initiates us into Christ’s priesthood, where we are called to imitate Him and preach as He did. Because of this fact there really is no role in the Church that is not powerful or doesn’t influence the entire congregation. Visibly powerful and influential roles sometimes get more done faster and with a more obvious effect, but that’s due to the visibility, not power or influence. So, generally speaking, faithful women are already members of the priesthood and are sitting in the seats of power to the extent that these positions are the “equivalent” to positions in corporate culture.
      The priesthood has no corporate equivalent because it is the special inheritance from Jesus. There are usually four or five reasons given for the ban on women priests in the Church, but I will offer you the one that I think is most important. The priest, when offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is acting “in persona Christi”–in the person of Christ. This doesn’t mean that the priest is pretending to be Jesus, or that Jesus possesses the priest. What the priest is doing in the person of Christ is working with Jesus at that very moment to transubstantiate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Jesus is performing the miracle because He is the only true Priest. The priest we see is an active reflection. If you can imagine, during the consecration (when transubstantiation happens) there is the image you see before you. At the same time there is a gossamer over/underlay to this tableau where the Last Supper (as it happened historically) is actually happening at that same moment. It’s two different points in history coming together to happen at the exact same time.
      This is possible because the priest is male, as was Christ Incarnate. If a woman priest was offering Mass, the process would not happen in complete union with the Last Supper. Instead of Jesus working through the priest, who is a reflection of Himself, Jesus would be working “side by side” with the woman. Since the work in question is the physical manifestation of Jesus in the bread and wine, having a “side by side” partner is unnecessary. Jesus could just zap into the elements Himself and transubstantiate them.
      And yes, Jesus could have done all this on His own regardless of gender, but the form He instituted before His Passion was deliberately chosen. Why is a question I can’t really answer. I can say that it has nothing to do with women as being less than men. But the mystery of the Sacrifice is perfected when done in the exact manner Jesus performed Himself.


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