On February 23, two Catholic feminist scholars debated whether the Catholic Church is anti-woman. To me that’s akin to debating whether the Inquisition was anti-Semitic, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief to consider both sides of the discussion. The debate took place at the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, Colorado.
Annually, the Institute hosts a “great debate” about a topical issue. Past debates have considered whether doctor-assisted suicide should be legal, if the free market can adequately care for the poor, and the pros and cons of abolishing the death penalty. This year, Catholicism and feminism was on the docket.
It appears the Institute archives its debates, but that hasn’t happened yet. So I’m relying on excerpted quotes.
According to media accounts, both scholars made interesting points. Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, pointed out, rightly in my view, that a church that fails to ordain women to the priesthood is failing a major litmus test. It’s denying that women are equal to men, or that women even are worthy to be on the same ontological plane when it comes to serving as surrogates for Christ, raising the question of whether they even deserve salvation.
“In my lifetime,” Case said, “the church that made me a feminist betrayed me.”
Although neither the early church nor the gospels were anti-women, Case noted, misogyny emerged later. Thomas Aquinas, for one, considered us women to be “misbegotten males.”
But for Case, the church’s opposition to women crystalized in the 1970s, when church leaders made clear that the ordination of women to the priesthood was not going to happen. Adding to the limitations on women was Pope John II’s insistence on “complementarity,” a theory that assigns specific roles to each gender.
I, too, agree, that the theory of complementarity has been a huge stumbling block to women fulfilling their potential in the church. Complementarity gives clerics a vehicle for claiming that women are just as good as men, but different. Their role is to nurture and to offer a wounded world tender love.
Pope Francis is certainly more open to feminism than John Paul II was, but he’s still very much into an image of woman as primarily nurturing mother. He says he’s for feminism, but only if it doesn’t “demand uniformity” or “negate motherhood.” He really has a thing for Moms, recently praising us for “testifying to tenderness” and “unconditional self-sacrifice.”
Even the Vatican’s recently issued sex education materials go this route, much to the disadvantage of the pre-teen girls who may be exposed to it. Indeed the materials go so far as to critique the “quest for equality” that has girls and boys vying with each other to see “who can get farther and be better.”
I thought the remarks of debater Erika Bachiochi, a visiting fellow at the conservative-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center were very telling. Bachiochi said that it was the institutional church’s teachings on “monogamy, divorce, and infanticide that attracted women in the first century into the Christian fold.”
Yes, in the first century, the church was ahead of its time. But since then, women’s rights have come a long way, and the church has not caught up.
Bachiochi did make a good point about the problem of clericalism in church, insisting that “a priest has the authority to represent Christ in a sacramental way, and I have the authority to represent Christ in every other area of my life.”
Pope Francis has strongly critiqued what he terms the “evil” of clericalism. “Clerics feel they are superior, they are far from the people”; they have no time to hear the poor, the suffering, prisoners, the sick.”
But Bachiochi claimed that ordaining women to the priesthood would itself be buying into clericalism.
I don’t agree. Women have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.
I’d like to end the role of money in American democracy. But I certainly would not be willing to deny women the right to run for office until we had solved that problem. Indeed, one hopes that more women candidates, knowing their own difficulty in the race for campaign funds, might be more sympathetic to campaign finance reform.
Likewise, Catholic women can’t wait for clericalism to go away to take their place as full-fledged participants in their faith.
In an ideal world all of us would be considered priests. But we’re not there yet – and there’s little to make me optimistic that we’ll arrive at that ideal state any time soon. People do not give up power easily. Democracy in the church – where priests and laity equally decide its future – is a distant dream.
In our flawed institutional church, women need more power – now. Not in some hazy future when clericalism disappears.
Celia Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope.