American culture, through generations of inherited ignorance, perpetuates many false ideas about the Catholic Church’s teachings about women. You can find the caricatures in almost any television series or movie with so-called Catholic characters: the crotchety ruler-wielding nun, the kilted Catholic high school student who is secretly a “bad girl,” the denim-jumper-clad homeschooling mother of a dozen who lacks personality and purpose, and the forward-thinking “cultural Catholic” who ignores almost all Catholic moral and social teaching. Modern Catholic women, at least those who genuinely believe and follow the teachings of the Church, are portrayed as backward, oppressed, or both. While converting to Catholicism, I was astounded to realize what a grave misconception this is! The Catholic Church’s teachings, rightly understood, uphold the inherent and singular dignity of woman’s place in creation, creating and the re-creative work of salvation history.
Probably the most popularly misunderstood Catholic teaching about women has to do with the Church’s conceptions of human sexuality. There’s a slew of cliched misinterpretations. For instance, a certain brand of feminist claims that without recourse to birth control or abortion, women are victims of sexual repression or countless pregnancies. Another one is that “Catholic guilt” makes it impossible for women to feel attraction, dress attractively, or enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. In reality, it is quite the opposite – it is the woman who buys into the doctrine of “sexual freedom” who is repressed, used, and trapped.
The Catholic Church teaches that every person, regardless of sex, nationality, race, or creed, has dignity because she is made in the image of God. She is created by Him and for Him and, from the moment of her conception, her life has value. A woman has a miraculous and unique role in making and nurturing life. God made sex for this very purpose, procreation, that is, to join with Him in forming a human, body and soul. That is why the marriage bed is the appropriate place for the most intimate union two human beings can share. That unique love is meant to overflow from the two becoming one. Sex is not meant for one human person to use another for physical pleasure, but that is what it becomes when separated from the self-giving and creative love of marriage.
The controversial teachings of the Church on sex, including those on marriage, birth control, and abortion, respect the natural way a woman’s body works and the miracle of life which a woman is capable of carrying within her. They protect women, born and unborn, and work to prevent the sexual objectification that runs rampant when sex is “free” and “without consequence”. Furthermore, the Church teaches that sex within marriage is meant to be for the mutual happiness and enjoyment of both men and women. A woman is not the slave of her husband’s whims; she is meant to be his beloved companion and respected partner in responsibly creating and raising a family. A woman’s sexuality and physical beauty are gifts from God, gifts which she then can choose to give to another in the sacrament of marriage or to consecrate to God.
This brings us to another unique teaching of the Church concerning women: her unique role in the Church through a vocation to motherhood, either physically or spiritually. Perhaps when the outside world thinks of Catholic vocations or callings, they seem a particularly masculine thing. After all, only men can be priests and in many places nuns seem an antiquated, endangered species. But every Catholic, and, for that matter, every human, has a calling from God, a role to play in His Kingdom. All women are especially called and equipped to be mothers, whether they ever carry or give birth to a child or not. Catholic women may not be priests, but that is not because they are unworthy or have a lesser place. They are not created to be spiritual fathers, any more than men are created to be mothers.
The vocation to physical and/or spiritual motherhood is based in woman’s natural tendencies toward tenderness, empathy, nurturing, emotional strength, teaching, and protecting. Whether they are married, living the consecrated religious life, or single, women have a special calling and ability to care for others, to teach them, and to help them to grow. Women help to birth souls into eternal life, grow disciples, and walk with another toward God. This motherhood does not in any way exclude women from other pursuits, passions, or positions of leadership. A woman’s talents do not hinder her ability to mother souls, nor does being a mother prevent her from having a personality or a craft. Devoting her life to the service of God, whether that plays out in the context of a family or a religious order, does not eliminate her identity as a woman, but enhances it by strengthening her character and purifying her soul.
The most obvious challenge to the idea that the Catholic Church does not value women lies in the person and doctrines of the Virgin Mary. Certainly Christ is a man, but when God became man He chose a human mother. Often the world points to the story of the Fall and sees woman disgraced, but misses the story of the Annunciation and woman redeemed. Although the first woman Eve said “no” to God, chose sin, and brought heartbreak to man and womankind alike, Mary, the second Eve, said “yes” to God, chose grace, and continues to participate in God’s plan for the salvation of the human race. The Church over and over again acknowledges Mary’s role in re-creating humanity: she gives her human nature to, carries in her body, and raises to manhood the Son of God. For this, she receives titles unique among the human race: “blessed among women”, “Mother of God”, and “Queen of Heaven”.
The Catholic Church respects Mary above all other created beings and teaches that she is the pinnacle of God’s creation. Through God’s grace, she helps bring salvation to all men, both through her work on Earth and her prayers in heaven. While the head of the Catholic Church on Earth is a man, the Mother of the Church is a woman, eternally carrying mankind to God. The honor and devotion Catholics give to the Blessed Mother is not separate from her womanhood, but entirely wrapped up in it. Only a woman could be the mother and virgin who bore Christ, only a woman could undo the pride of Eden with the humility of Nazareth, and only a woman could become the Mother of all Mankind. She alone, Virgin and Mother, teaches us the dignity of all mankind: to participate with God in the salvation of souls and the restoration of Creation.
In addition to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy women whom the Church venerates and holds up as examples for all Catholics are a diverse group of heroines. Among the saints there are scholars and servants, mothers and virgins, warriors and princesses, courageous martyrs and quiet voices of love that echo down the centuries. Like these saints, real women do not fit into an easy mold, but the Catholic Church acknowledges that they are all precious human beings, instilled with dignity, strength, and purpose by their Creator who fiercely loves His daughters.