A comment on an article about Evangelicals joining the Catholic Church caught my attention:
I'm struck in this article... that no evangelical women are cited. Could this be related to the tendency in both Evangelical and Roman Catholic circles to see women as 'less than?'
Allow me to be blunt: The brilliance, or stupidity, or utter disingenuousness of the comment floored me.
Brilliant, because it offers any reader, no matter his convictions, the opportunity to nod sagely in agreement with the unspoken notion that Catholics--and Evangelicals--must be somehow terrible folk because they see women as “less than,” unlike the more enlightened types, one of whom undoubtedly wrote the comment in the first place.
Stupid, because it is a thought unfinished. My third grade teacher, Elvy Delores Hatfield (yes, those Hatfields) Lancaster Land would have marked the offending composition with red ink and returned it to me to complete.
Disingenuous, because the statement lacks the candor to come right out and tell us what the writer might be thinking--what is really irksome about these Catholics and their attitudes toward women. The comment plays on ambiguity and bias while leaving a wide-open literary escape from criticism. After all, the statement really says....nothing.
Starting with the disclaimer that the Church is full of both wheat and tares--those who really follow the faith and those who ignore it; those who struggle to live up to the teachings, and those who try to destroy them, and a lot of us in between, I think it is probably fair to judge the Church as we wish to be judged ourselves: by the best examples of what we strive to be, not by those times when we as sinners fall short. With that in mind, it is instructive to follow this "tend to view women as less than" statement to its logical conclusions.
Complete the "less than" thought with the right ending-- “less than” angels, say, or God Himself, and you will get no disagreement from this mainstream Roman Catholic woman, an adult convert from the Episcopal church, a physician-lawyer now reinvented on the back nine of life as a middle manager in a Fortune 500 company. Fill it in with other words, ones I suspect may better reflect the writer's attitude, and watch me rise to the bait, blue paint on my face and broadsword in hand.
Perhaps the unspoken end to the sentence is this: important. Perhaps the writer thinks women are simply irrelevant in the grand scheme of Catholic theology and thinking and worship and living.
Oh, wait--there’s the Blessed Mother, the most exalted and important created being to ever draw breath, the means by which God chose to bring His salvation to earth, the means by which He was to show His people the only thing He could not Himself model as Man Incarnate, God Divine: how to be a perfect disciple. Through...a woman. Venerated by the Church throughout the ages, to the extent some misguided Protestants, ignorant of Catholic teaching and practice, accuse the Church of installing her as the fourth face of the Trinity. Perhaps Mary, Mother of God (no minor role, that) was a special case?
Tell that to Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus, the first of the other disciples to encounter the Risen Lord, the one who, breathless brought the news back to the others. Tell that to Martha of Bethany, whose faith was simple and direct and so clear that she recognized Christ as the Messiah, complete with an understanding of the resurrection, in advance of the fact of the empty tomb. Tell that to Mary, her sister, who took up her spot at the feet of the Master, establishing once and for all the proper place of women as fully disciples. Tell that to countless women, recognized and obscure, through the ages whose faith and whose action have stirred, reformed, renewed, sustained and invigorated the Church. Tell that to any of the women on the calendar of saints.
Paul himself (that would be Paul , the Catholic bishop) discredits the idea of women as unimportant goods in the commerce of family life at a time when such was the unquestioned norm. Wives, be submissive to your husbands, he counsels--and every feminist worth her underpinnings leaps on that statement as a pivot point proof of the Church’s inherent sexism. This would be a fine interpretation except for the statement that follows it: Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church, even laying down His life for her. Not a bad deal, from my perspective, and certainly not an indication of the unimportance of women. In fact, the message I hear from Christ's Church is one of blessed mutual dignity and respect. From the Didache to John Paul II’s theology of the body, to the encyclicals of the current Pontiff, Church teaching is replete with the message that man and women are equal in dignity before God and each has an individual, cherished and unique role in nature and in the Church. Both important. Each unique, precious and unrepeatable. Insignificant? Surely--in some objective ways, we all are--but so valuable that God Himself chose to die for us, and would have done so even if we were the only person ever to live and sin. Insignificant? Hardly.
Perhaps the missing term is influential. Is it possible that Catholic women are less than influential in the faith? Is that why women are counted among the Doctors of the Church in a time when the secular world ignored their contributions altogether--and still does? Is that why Gregory IX returned the papacy to Rome after being confronted by Catherine of Siena. Is that why St. Philomena, of whom nothing is known except her martyrdom and her miracles, became the patron of St. John Vianney, himself the patron of parish priests? Is that why a poor woman from Calcutta was able to shame modern clerics and presidents alike by sheer dint of her example, establishing a world-wide order for care of the poorest of the poor out of quite literally nothing at all? Is that why Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Edith Stein, and countless other Catholic women cut a broad swath in the intellectual and political life of the 20th Century?
Get right down to the things that really matter and what is more influential than raising a new generation in the faith? Mothering is something modern feminists disparage, but in reality, it is the task of the greatest dignity, influence and value in the the grand, everlasting scheme of things. Of all the roles I have held in my life, this one is the only one that really matters.
Perhaps the missing word is men? Doesn’t the Catholic Church by its very structure announce to the world that men are superior, and women are but handmaids? After all, there are no women Catholic priests, and will be none. Roma locuta est, causa finita est.
Behind that notion is the unspoken, prideful, narcissistic and completely modern idea that women--or any group of grievance or influence, for that matter-- have a right to be anything they want, including a priest in God’s Church. Simply writing the idea down dispels it--if it is, indeed, God’s church, no one, not anyone--has a right to Holy Orders. The call is God’s and the Catholic Church believes He’s made it. One may disagree with the interpretation, but take it on its own terms one must in order to be intellectually honest. To understand that the human leaders vested with preserving the Church have no authority to change the deposit of faith and the rules it entails is hardly discrimination or diminishment; it is fidelity.
Boys and girls are visibly, truly, physically, emotionally and spiritually different--ask any mother who has raised both. Equal in dignity but different with differences that cannot be willed away by a desire to remake creation in some bizarre notion of modern equivalence. And many,many happy and fulfilled Catholic women (and men) recognize that. We Catholic women are not less than men. We are different, and thanks be to God, for in finding the right relations between the two “others” of creation, man and woman, we find the key to understanding our relationship with God, who is so completely Other we can only approach Him through the things we know in the here and now and the things He has revealed.
Perhaps the missing word is liberated? Perhaps Catholic women are held in bondage by the men in their lives, even if one might buy that tired fantasy that they are equal and different? Tell that to Mother Theresa, and the order she founded with the blessing of her Mother Superior. Tell that to the the Sister in charge of a local Catholic hospital. Tell that to Saint Elizabeth Seton, or Saint Theresa of Avila or any of the countless women who formed, or reformed, religious orders, or educational systems or hospitals. Show me one other organization in which women have created so much, on their own and in the company of other women, with so little help--or interference--from men. The current visitation of American nuns is a subject of interest and comment precisely because it is so unusual--for decades the very women who are complaining of this inquiry were left unmolested to run their lives and their orders. Subjugated? Hardly.
Catholic women less than liberated? Tell that to St. Gianna Molla, an Italian physician who was freed from her own selfishness enough to risk and ultimately give her life for the life of her unborn child rather than rationalize it away because she was “less” than liberated. Tell that to Kimberly Hahn or Janet Ray or Johnette Benkovic or the woman in the pew down from me at Mass every Sunday, all of whom have found the freedom in their faith to live lives of generosity and enthusiasm with their families and their friends, and sometimes with total strangers.
All testimony is ultimately personal and all opinion biased. Here’s mine: filling in the blanks of the sentence, I can tell you that, as a devoted Catholic woman, who is sometimes more devout and sometimes less, and always journeying, I am not “less than” since coming to the Catholic faith. I was “less than” before I embraced it. Less than fulfilled. Less than faithful. Less than peaceful. Less than likely to share the Good News of Christ.
Now I am “more.” More like what I am meant to be. More peaceful, more loving, more joyful, more complete, more liberated, more generous, more pleasant, more enthusiastic, more patient, more kind, more self-controlled, more gentle, more evangelistic..... And like all the saints and Saints before me, what I mostly am (or try to be, with His grace) is more obedient to God and His Church.
His, not mine. His plan, not mine. I realized the pull of Truth and Authority, neither of which is of my own making. The pull is real, and not relative, and there for the finding. I came to understand that real freedom, authentic liberation, and genuine fulfillment come from finding my place in God’s kingdom and listening to His call and living out, in His loving Spirit rather than my stubborn and willful one, my unique vocation in life. It is a world not black and white, and oppressive, or shades of grey and therefore dull, but one vibrant with all the color and harmony of God’s palette. The difference is that I am no longer burdened with "making it up as I go along."
I find, as Catholics seem to do when they really engage in practicing the faith rather than paying it lip service or arguing about it, that in my obedience--even when I do not totally understand or when parts of me rebel-- I find ultimate validation as a child of God and great, great love. Obedience and acceptance come first and are asked of us all. Living in faith is not a misguided quest for self-actuation and worldly status. And every Catholic who actively engages in a real attempt to practice his faith must also practice obedience: to the Magisterium, to the pastor, to the bishops, who themselves are to be obedient, all of us ultimately to God. Christ spoke of living the faith in terms of a yoke, not free rein. When this assent of faith is given, understanding follows in waves and seems never to have an end. Ask Thomas Aquinas. Or, for that matter, Teresa of Avila.
Even so, there is still work to be done in me by the Holy Spirit. I am, unfortunately, also more--not less-- annoyed by people who know not whereof they speak when talking about the Catholic Church and her women, and do not, in the bargain, have the courtesy even to say plainly what they mean. And I am less inclined to let them go unchallenged when they make comments such as this.