Anyone who claims that the Catholic Church is anti-woman knows little about her rich history and Tradition in proclaiming the beauty and greatness of womanhood. There is no more pro-woman institution than the Catholic Church. And here are five reasons why.
First, the salvation of all humanity hinged on a singular woman’s “Yes,” her fiat, to becoming the mother of Jesus. God could have chosen to bring about the salvific act of Christ in so many ways, but he chose to do so in and through a woman. The Catholic Church honors and celebrates Mary’s wholly singular role (Catechism 968) with special devotion. Catholics do not worship Mary, but they do honor her — and rightfully so. However, Mary’s unique role in the Church is “inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it” (964). Since we are the body of Christ, and Mary is Christ’s mother, she is also our mother and the Mother of the Church (963). Christ declared her our Mother by entrusting her to St. John and entrusting St. John to her: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother’ (John 19:26-27).”
Second, holy Scripture is brimming with the stories of at least 137 women, many of them brave matriarchs, heroines and saints. For example, in the Old Testament, we have the most attractive woman of the kingdom of Persia, Queen Esther, who saved her husband, King Ahasuerus, from being murdered, saved the Jewish people from a massacre at Haman’s hands and spared the life of her uncle Mordecai. Then there’s Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, the sons who fathered the 12 tribes of Israel. Then there’s Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who saved the Israelites from surrendering to the Assyrians by sneaking in the enemy camp and decapitating the general, Holofernes.
In the New Testament, two of the three people at the foot of the cross while Jesus died were women, Mary his mother and St. Mary Magdalene, who was also given the privilege of being the very first to know of Christ’s resurrection and announce it to his disciples. For this, she is known as the “apostle to the apostles.” We have St. Elizabeth, who was called to be the mother of St. John the Baptist, the one to announce the coming of Christ. Then there’s Anna, the widowed saintly prophetess who served “God with fasting and prayer” (Luke 2:36) and prophesied at infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple that he was the promised Messiah. Sts. Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus, served him with both prayer (Mary) and acts of service (Martha), becoming for us examples of the contemplative and active roles in the service of the Church (Luke 10:38-42). These are just a few of the key women in the Scriptures.
Third, the Catholic Church is zealous in honoring women for their virtuous womanhood and has declared at least 783 female saints. In addition to Mary and other saints already mentioned, notable models of Catholic femininity include Sts. Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Catherine of Siena and Blessed Mother Teresa. Some of these holy women were wives and mothers (Sts. Gianna Beretta Molla, Elizabeth of Hungary, Margaret of Scotland). Some were consecrated laywomen (St. Catherine of Siena), either having been widowed or never marrying. Many were consecrated religious, and some became foundresses of various convents (St. Clare of Assisi). Some were married and then became consecrated religious after the death of their husbands (Sts. Bridget of Sweden, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Rita). Many were virgins (Sts. Agnes, Maria Goretti), and others were former prostitutes (Mary of Egypt).There were women who claimed the crown of martyrdom by being exposed to wild beasts and the sword (Sts. Felicity and Perpetua), beheaded (Sts. Agnes, Cecilia) and burned at the stake (St. Joan of Arc). There were also women saints who suffered white martyrdom. For example St. Rita, who suffered through an arranged marriage to a cruel and ill-tempered man, and St. Monica who suffered through her husband’s adultery and the pains of her wayward son, St. Augustine, before his conversion.
Some were politically astute. We have queens (Sts. Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth of Hungary). Others were princesses (St. Elizabeth of Portugal). St. Margaret, for example, was the mother of three kings of Scotland. She founded churches and restored monasteries and served the poor and orphans. St. Catherine of Siena, persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to his residence in Rome from Avignon. Some were medical doctors (St. Gianna Beretta Molla) and four are doctors of the Church (Sts. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen). Most were poor by virtue of their chosen vow to poverty, and some were rich by virtue of their state in life, but used their wealth for the glory of God. They were all “poor in spirit,” acknowledging that everything was given to them by God and forsaking the promise of the temporal for the promise of the eternal.
They were introverts and extroverts, thinkers and doers. They covered the continents, of every ethnicity and age, spanning the drama of human history, immersed deeply in the state and place of their time, yet transcending it by their indefatigable zeal to serve Christ and his Church in their own unique way, often at the cost of their very lives.
They were in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). They were bold, courageous, virtuous women in every state in life, participating fully in the life of the Church. They were truly themselves and fully alive. Almost any woman could discover a soul sister in one of these saints and then can take her as a model, striving to live as she did.
Fourth, the Church has been a strong defender of the beauty and dignity of women in her official teaching. The Catechism states: “Man and woman have been willed by God ‘in perfect equality as human persons,’ and they ‘possess an inalienable dignity.’ … In their ‘being man’ and ‘being woman,’ they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness” (369). In St. John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), he wrote, “Holy women are an incarnation of the feminine ideal” (27).
In his 1995 "Letter to Women," he described what he called the “feminine genius”:
“In this vast domain of service, the Church’s two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the ‘genius of woman’; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history” (10).
Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), expressed his concern about the negative consequences of artificial birth control on women, stating:
“How easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. … Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (17).
How chillingly accurate his predictions reverberate nearly 50 years later.
Fifth, the Church is esteemed as the bride of Christ, a woman. St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians states: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. ... This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (5:25-32).
May these examples serve as reminders that the Church is fighting the real “war on women” by honoring the dignity of women and celebrating their irreplaceable role in the world.
Arina O. Grossu is the director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council.
She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Dominican House of Studies in Washington.