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A Marian or a Feminist Church?


The New Testament begins with a story about a humble young woman who willingly submits to the will of God when He calls her to a momentous vocation.


Yet she is also portrayed as a virtuous, contemplative heroine, capable of articulating the desires and expectations of her entire people in poetry so brilliant and beautiful that today, more than 2,000 years removed from that event, it's daily prayed by millions of Catholics the world over. The contemporary feminist critique of Catholicism, however, claims it's a misogynist institution: whether it be the Church telling women what to do with their bodies (abortion and contraception), or prohibiting them from positions of ecclesial authority.

In response to this criticism, many Catholics claim that, far from being antiquated and sexist, the Church has always been the impetus for religious and social change that elevates the status of women. They're not wrong. Nevertheless, apologetics that aim to argue that the Church was the first feminist institution—or similar rhetoric approaches—risk adopting the very same false premises that underlie the entire modern feminist project with its emphasis on power, autonomy, equality.

Bronwen McShea's otherwise excellent brief history Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know, flirts with this feminist tendency, practically right out of the gate. "This book is also for anyone interested in the history of Catholicism—to demonstrate that the history of the Church's women is the Church's history, just as much as the history of her men is." Fair enough, though who, exactly, has said otherwise? And is this a competition?

McShea offers fascinating anecdotes of the many Catholic female saints and martyrs from the third-century Perpetua and Felicity (whose Passion is probably the earliest, first-person account from the perspective of a female) to the great medieval monarchs such as Jadwiga of Poland, to modern mystics such as Thérèse of Lisieux. Yet there also seems a forced need to convince the reader of women's indispensability.

She argues that without Helena, Constantine's mother, there wouldn't have been freedom for Christianity in the late Roman Empire, and no Nicene Creed, given that Constantine called the council that created it. True, but aren't mothers behind every great person?

The text is unnecessarily sprinkled with this kind of language. "Women played an important part in the beginnings of Christian monasticism." Christian queens and noblewomen "played leading roles in establishing new monastic communities." Isabella of Spain was a "formidable Catholic woman without whom important episodes in the Church's history cannot be fully understood." Maria Theresa of Austria was "one of the most powerful figures in the Enlightenment era."

This ritualistic reiteration of women's power and influence is a drag on an otherwise interesting summary of female roles in Christian history. In the preface, McShea admits that as a child she was more drawn to male saints who appeared more "dynamic," which seems to be an attempt to appeal to feminist readers suspicious of an oppressive, patriarchal Church. The celebrated Catholic writer Patricia Snow underscores that objective in her foreword when she writes, somewhat bizarrely: "the woman moves to the center and the dimensions of the female project become clear."

Undoubtedly, McShea is correct regarding women's critical role throughout Church history. The Bible and the early Church were quite radical in their respect for the human dignity of women, as well as for giving them unprecedented degrees of influence and autonomy. It was women who funded Jesus' ministry (Luke 8:30); who comprised most of His followers at His crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41); and who first saw the risen Lord (John 20:1-18).

Controversy notwithstanding, McShea writes beautifully about women—saints and not—across two millennia of Church history. We learn of Dihya, a Berber queen in what is today Algeria, who fought against the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate in an (ultimately losing) action against Muslim conquest. We read of medieval Beguines, who, though not taking solemn religious vows, were informally committed to celibacy, prayer, fasting, manual labor, and charitable work. We are told of Blessed Mary Theresa Ledóchowska, a Polish noblewoman who promoted African missions in the decades around the beginning of the twentieth century.

But what lesson should we learn from these riveting anecdotes? Is it that these women were powerful, influential, and independent—language that, even if unintentionally, capitulates to modern feminist themes about where human meaning is ultimately found? Or that they courageously lived (and often died) for Christ? The whole presentation seems to imply that modern women need not fear; the Church promotes those feminist values of which they have already been catechized by secular feminists.

Moreover, such an approach belies the realities of Catholic teaching manifested in that Marian beginning to the Gospels—where a woman humbly surrenders her autonomy for the sake of others. As sociologist Rodney Stark argues in his impressive The Rise of Christianity, this served as a major impetus for growth in the first five centuries of the Church.

In a Roman Empire that endorsed a system of abortion and infanticide that disproportionately targeted female babies, Christianity asserted the inherent dignity of all human life, regardless of sex. Christian condemnations of divorce, incest, marital infidelity, and polygamy all served to protect women. Meanwhile, the large percentage of females in Christian communities inevitably led them into positions of privilege rarely accessible in pagan Rome.

Ironically, the very same Catholic teachings that once fostered female value and status are today perceived to be the greatest obstacles to those goods. What links secular, feminist modernity to the ancient pagan world seems to be an aversion, if not hostility, towards female fertility, which limits human autonomy and power.

If so, telling women that they will find power, influence, and equality in the Church is clearly not the right message, given that the Church more fundamentally teaches humility and self-abnegation.

Far better, I'd think, forthrightly to tell the marvelous stories of female Catholics with all the pluck and passion they deserve. At that task, in any case, McShea succeeds.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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CaseyChalkCasey Chalk. "A Marian or a Feminist Church?." The Catholic Thing (May 13, 2024). 

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing.

The Author

Casey Chalk is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press) and a senior contributor at The Federalist. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.

Copyright © 2024 The Catholic Thing

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