Are Women Better off Catholic?

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City with St. Peter's Basilica in the background. Photo by Greg O'Beirne via Wikipedia/GFDL Creative Commons

St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. Photo by Greg O’Beirne via Wikipedia/GFDL Creative Commons

Is Catholicism better then Evangelicalism when it comes to females?

The very title of this piece may be confusing for some.  Is the Roman Catholic Church better for women than evangelical Protestantism?  Some may argue that Catholicism is by nature highly patriarchal and even sexist.  Women are not allowed to be priests, not allowed to use birth control, etc.  The Catholic Church is run by a bunch of men who believe that marrying a woman would simply be too distracting from their duties.  They do not allow women to play a role in selecting the Pope, voting on important doctrinal issues, or administering the sacraments.

To all this I respond, “How is that really any different from evangelicalism?”  We too typically prevent women from becoming members of the clergy or serving on the deacon and elder boards that make important church decisions.  While we do not condemn all forms of birth control, we do start to ask questions when people don’t seem to want to get married, have children, or participate in idyllic family life.  Generally, the role of women in basic church governance, teaching, and administration is no greater in evangelicalism than in Catholicism.

What’s more, there are some ways in which the Catholics actually have us beat in the area of female appreciation.  While they have not gone as far as our “mainline” Protestant friends and started ordaining women, they have gone much further than evangelical/conservative Protestants in recognizing the important role of women in shaping our understanding of theology and doctrine.

Growing up in evangelical churches and schools, the great theological writers I heard about were always men.  Yes, our women’s ministry books were written by women, and we had inspirational tales of females like Joni Erickson Tada and Elizabeth Elliott.  However, the theological heavy lifting was always done by the men: from historical figures like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards to modern day writers like C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wayne Grudem, Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, or N.T. Wright. (In case you are wondering, no, Beth Moore and Nancy Leigh DeMoss do not belong on that list.)

A painting of St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens, made around 1615

A painting of St. Teresa of Ávila by Peter Paul Rubens, made around 1615

While most of the theological writers celebrated by Catholics are still men, they have found a way to acknowledge women as well.  Even in the highly patriarchal periods prior to the Enlightenment, devotional writings by females became highly popular.  Catholics give the title “Doctor of the Church” to figures who have made a major impact in the areas of doctrine and theology, and since 1970 four women have finally managed to make it onto this list: Teresa of Ávila (one of the most popular authors in any Catholic bookstore), Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen.  The acknowledgement for three of those women may be incredibly delayed, but it counts nonetheless.

Beyond those who have received this prestigious title, many women have been officially acknowledged as saints.  These prominent females are revered for their devotion to the faith, from historical figures such as Bernadette Soubirous (associated with the visions of “Our Lady of Lourdes”) – whose hometown continues to be a major Catholic pilgrimage site in France – to the recent Mother Teresa (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta).

Protestants tend to reject the whole idea of “saints”, seeing it as a potential doctrinal minefield of misplaced devotion, prayer, and even borderline idolatry.  Of course, that has not kept evangelicals from quoting males such as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. (They lived before Martin Luther, so they aren’t really Catholics, right?)

Part of the reason Catholics have all those female saints is that they have religious orders for both men and women.  Thus, although women cannot be Catholic priests, they are able to be engaged in professional ministry and be looked to as religious authorities: the writings of prominent nuns tend to receive a good deal of attention along with those of prominent monks, even if things are not completely egalitarian.  Conservative and evangelical Protestants really have nothing comparable to this for women.  The closest a female could get is teaching at one of our seminaries, which is sometimes allowed and other times frowned upon.

Protestants also removed some major female role models when they axed the Apocrypha from the Bible.  Now, I am not trying to make an argument that we ought to include these books.  After all, Jewish scholars have never done so, and they should know better than most which Jewish writings are authoritative.  Still, this extra literature (which is regarded as canonical by Catholics) gives major starring roles to women: Susanna and Judith.

In the story of Susanna (which appears as an addition to the Book of Daniel), a righteous woman is accused of sexual deviancy by two men who spy on her while she is bathing.  She is ultimately spared the death penalty when the prophet Daniel (the one who became so famous surviving the lions’ den) shows up and testifies to her moral uprightness while revealing the true treachery of her accusers upon cross-examination.

In this 17th century painting, Judith is depicted with the head of Holofernes. The work is by Simon Vouet or one of his followers.

In this 17th century painting, Judith is depicted with the head of Holofernes. The work is by Simon Vouet or one of his followers.

Judith’s story is even better.  Dismayed with the cowardice shown by her fellow Jews in not trusting in the Lord to save them from foreign oppressors, she uses her womanly charms to seduce the Assyrian general Holofernes.  When night comes and Holofernes is drunk, she comes into his tent and cuts his head off.  That’s right: She cuts his head off!  The Jewish nation is then saved as the Assyrians run back to their homeland in fear.

I have no idea if either of these stories is true.  Scholars have pointed out certain inconsistencies, and I certainly would not place them on the same level as the canonical books of the Old Testament.  Still, I must say that I really like Judith.  The two books of the Protestant Bible named after females, Ruth and Esther, both feature women who are largely victims of their circumstances and for whom marriage to a powerful man is one of the main points of the story. (No offense, ladies!) Judith, on the other hand, shows a lot of initiative in taking matters into her own hands.  Much like the biblical character Deborah from the Book of Judges, God sends a woman to do the job when the men are too wimpy.

Perhaps the greatest way that Catholicism has honored women is in its treatment of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Much like the Catholic theology regarding saints, Protestants are very cautious when it comes to Marianism.  Why, they ask, should we be praying to Mary in addition to Christ?  Why should we put statues of her in our churches and our gardens?  Why do we have to appeal to her before throwing a winning touchdown pass?

It is true enough that none of these things are dictated in scripture.  The Bible says very little about Mary in comparison to the level of importance granted to her by Catholics.  Some interesting Catholic theological concepts, such as Mary’s Immaculate Conception (not to be confused with the Virgin Birth), her perpetual virginity, and even her assumption and enthronement in Heaven, seem to be more the result of creative human invention than biblical exegesis.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne", circa 1500-1513

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, circa 1500-1513

Yet, if there is one good thing that comes of out all of this respect for Mary, it is that it places a female at the pinnacle of Catholic devotion, just one rung below Christ Himself.  For Catholics, Mary was the most righteous non-divine human being who ever lived.  Granting that kind of respect to a woman makes it fairly impossible to dismiss the female sex entirely, at least not without committing a massive act of hypocrisy.

Catholic women, more so than their evangelical counterparts, have plenty of great women to look to as examples for their own lives.  They can even have some hope that, should they become great theological writers, their work may one day be almost as respected as that of their male counterparts.

What is my point?  Well, I am not going to argue that we as evangelical Protestants should start adopting a bunch of Catholic theological concepts in order to place more of an emphasis on the fairer sex.  Rather, we should find additional ways to honor the contributions of women within our own ranks.

We must realize that women are just as gifted by the Holy Spirit as men, and they ought to play a role in the areas of biblical teaching and decision making in our local churches, even if we still reserve some specific positions for men due to theological convictions.  We also must be intentional in including women in the reading lists of our best Bible schools and seminaries, honoring their academic works and doctrinal tomes just as much as those of men.  When we fail to do this, we should not be surprised if the women gravitate toward denominations that welcome their contributions.

What I am suggesting would require a certain amount of creativity.  I am seeking a greater role for women in developing theology because I want our doctrine to be stronger and more correct, not watered down and incorrect.  If we were to suddenly make a bunch of changes in our doctrine as part of some kind of gender-based affirmative action, we will end up making things worse rather than better.  Instead, let’s find ways to promote strong female role models for the women in our churches, whether they are average congregants or aspiring professors.  Let us not be the part of Christianity that is lagging behind when it comes to honoring women.