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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 1
Eastertide 2011

To Feminist Questions, the Church Has Answers

by Joanna Bogle

When discussing the Church and feminism over recent years, it has become my habit to say “The feminists are raising some useful questions — but they aren’t listening to the answers”.

And this has indeed been true: for two or three decades, feminist campaigners — inside and outside the Church — have been asking questions like “Why doesn’t the Catholic Church ordain women as priests?” “Why does the Church see motherhood as sacred?” “Why does the Church teach that contraception is wrong?” and “Why doesn’t the Church just shut up about all this?”

And the point is that, shorn of the crudity and vulgarity with which these questions are often asked (for they rarely seem to be put in a courteous or even friendly way) they are in fact good questions. And the answers are — if the feminists and others would only pause for long enough to listen to them — profound, interesting, useful, and important, and centered on truths so essential to our humanity that they are crucial not only to our personal lives but to our common life together and indeed to our whole future.

Alas, however, the pause to listen has rarely been given. Down the centuries, the Church has been prudent in listening to her critics, and in answering their challenges, and when she has not exercised that prudence, or has done so belatedly, her mission has been severely harmed and her work of evangelization and sanctification has been held back.

The Church has nothing to fear from challenging questioning, and our long history has shown that attempts to silence the questioners, to insult them, or to ignore them are not the right approach. Rather, we should assume that Christ, who is Lord of all history, is in charge and that He wants us to use every opportunity to glorify Him, to spread His kingdom, and to win Him souls. This includes answering challenges to the Faith, countering insults with love, listening carefully, and being open to the real needs and miseries that may lie behind some of the more vociferous anti-Church comments.

The full importance of this only dawned on me when I began to read the works of Saint Edith Stein. As Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, she was a devout Carmelite nun whose truly humble approach to God and to the Church was the result of long studies in philosophy and a quest for truth. Because she was Jewish, she was murdered in Auschwitz, one of the six million victims of the Holocaust. This terrible death, which she met with great courage — she was last seen trying to comfort and console the small children in one of the transit camps into which people were herded — has thrown a veil over the achievements of her life in academia. But her writings, her philosophical studies, and her search for truth, are all worthy of study.

I was particularly struck by her essays on the role and education of women. At first, I was puzzled. She appeared to be issuing a rallying-call for women’s needs in higher education and this seemed to me unnecessary and almost a cliché. Then it dawned on me: when she wrote this, back in the 1930s, many people were actually opposed to formal higher education for women, or thought the topic an irrelevant one.

In fact, I was helped in this thought by a comment in one of Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective stories. In it, her character Lord Peter Wimsey is dining at a women’s college at Oxford and is asked his views “on the question of women’s education”. “Is it still a question?” he replies — meaning that it ought to be taken for granted. Sayers was herself an academic — she was among the first women to be granted a degree from Oxford — and also a sincere Christian whose stalwart defense of Christian orthodoxy was a hallmark of her writing in her later years.

Edith Stein wrote with passion and conviction about the value of women in academia, about the specific feminine insights and understanding — what John Paul II would later call the “feminine genius” — that women could bring to teaching and to the whole concept of an academic environment. She saw — as, incidentally did Sayers, although not in anything like the same depth — that there was unexplored territory here, that the Church needed to see something of real value in the newly emerging possibilities for women. As women’s roles changed in the 1920s and ’30s, there were opportunities for the Church to grasp, not trends to be deplored.

In the 1930s, there was something of a gap here: not much was said by the Church, in any large and public and prophetic way, about women. Of course there were other issues that needed attention: there had been a ghastly war, and things looked set for another. There was widespread poverty and unemployment in most of the developed world. There was the scourge of a militant atheistic Communism and the rising horror of Nazism.

I am not denouncing the Church for failing to address a topic that could certainly have been felt to be safely left on the wait-for-a-moment-Mother-is-busy list. But some points are worth pondering. When Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubi [chaste marriage], was published (December 31, 1930), teaching the wrongfulness of contraception and pointing to the immense damage that it would do to marriage and to family life, it was addressed — as were all encyclical letters and other documents in those days — to the “Venerable brethren”, the pope’s brothers in the episcopate. That was technically right — but what a missed opportunity, when the world’s women might, at that stage, have been warmly interested and genuinely touched and inspired by the message that it brought!

Many decades later, August 15, 1988, John Paul II issued a magnificent letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, on the dignity and vocation of women, addressed to the world’s women (you can hear echoes in it of Edith Stein’s writings, which JPII studied in some depth). It was a breakthrough — the Church was addressing the people she sought to influence, with a trust in their capacity to listen and think things through.

Was it too late? Well, in one sense the Church always acts rather late in the day. In the 19th century, industrialization changed the landscape (literally) of much of Europe and North America, as people flocked to factories and vast cities emerged, which became hotbeds of poverty and human hardship even as they also produced iron and steel and manufactured goods and massive opportunities in transport and communication.

The Church, which for centuries had operated on the (correct) assumption that most people lived in a semi-agrarian economy, had to grapple with issues of economic and social justice on a different scale. Through the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s there were bishops, priests, religious brothers and sisters, and dedicated lay people who sought to relieve the needs of the poor and to open schools and hospitals and a vast network of social care with sacrificial dedication and generosity. But it was not until the 1890s that the Church, under Leo XIII, produced the great encyclical Rerum Novarum — “of new things”, tackling this whole subject. New things?

I’m not criticizing the Church. She teaches with wisdom, kindness, greatness, and authority. But I’m being realistic. She sometimes gets delayed. Some of today’s feminists are building on the apparent inability of the Church in the recent past to tackle issues that were beginning to emerge. Well, they have emerged now. We have had a rampant and ugly feminism that has claimed many victims. The unborn babies killed by abortion, the children forced to endure sickening pornographic images in so-called “sex education”, the public dishonoring of marriage and of family life and of faithfulness and of charity and service and sacrifice — all of these have been terribly harmful things, and healing will need massive amounts of prayer, and very dedicated and humble action by those prepared to help clear up the mess and point to a better way.

But even as we do this — and it’s going to take a good deal of energy and courage, because feminists haven’t begun to admit that they have been wrong on so many things — we have got to see the larger picture. Uncoupled from the ghastly things that have come in their wake or alongside them, some of the questions that feminists have been asking have been rooted in a genuine quest to discern what God could possibly have meant in making us male and female. There are real issues here: do sexual differences matter? Why? Are these things important? Is there a mystery here that speaks to us of God?

And the Church has answers: yes, God had a plan and a meaning in creating us male and female. Yes, it’s important. Yes, this all speaks to us of great and profound things, of Christ and His Church, of Bridegroom and Bride. Yes, we are meant to learn more of these things. Yes, there is a Eucharistic meaning here, which we must study and ponder. Yes, the Church does know and understand the greatness of a male priesthood: Christ our High Priest did something of huge significance in ordaining only men, the importance of which we have always known but are perhaps only just beginning to understand fully. Yes, there is a meaning in marriage that is deep and crucial. Yes, the gift of children is such that any attempt to deny this as a fruit of marriage is deeply wrong.

We can have a great confidence in the Church and in her ability to speak and act, not only through her formal teachings but also through her saints. Women have done very well by the Catholic Church: from the women who were the first heralds of the Resurrection, through the great martyrs and mystics, queens and abbesses, missionaries and visionaries, right down to the saints and heroines of the 20th century whose canonizations we have witnessed in recent years.

And Catholic women love the Church: we relish her teachings because they feed our minds and lift up our hearts and souls. We can answer all challenges with conviction — and in doing so will end up exploring and defining a message that is glorious. Our critics may rail against the Church but we can answer them with humor and with serenity: they are asking useful questions, and the Church has the answers. Just let Mother get a word in; she has been pondering, and when she speaks, she’s worth hearing.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.

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