There are many reasons why the Catholic Church is not the best when it comes to women’s rights. I’ve definitely hit on the big ones on this blog before: banning women from the priesthood, refusing to acknowledge divorce, and of course fighting constantly against women’s reproductive rights. But there’s another way in which the Catholic Church is pretty darn sexist, and it’s less about a position on a major political issue than it is about the church’s overall view of women and the language many of its adherents use to describe us.
A point I often heard growing up in the conservative Catholic homeschooling community was that women were special. That we were a beautiful, wonderful part of God’s creation. I can get behind that sentiment minus the whole God thing–until they would give their favorite example of why women are so special: they can create life. Don’t get me wrong, the whole babies thing is cool, and it is part of what makes me female, but this is often used as the only point to support this idea that women are beloved by God, and when one combines it with the things women are forbidden from doing by the Catholic church, keeping us from holding the top leadership roles in the church and controlling us on matters of reproduction, it’s easy to see why a woman might come to the conclusion that we’re only valuable as vessels for human life, not as individual human beings ourselves.
This idea wasn’t just spoken by the homeschooling families around me. It abounded in our educational materials, especially the religious ones. In a lecture that was part of a tangential talk on a Bible Study DVD, the speaker expressed this idea in the context of the Adam and Eve story: (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.)
“The woman is God’s most complex, beautiful creation. She can create life. Think about how incredible that is. I’m a guy. I can’t do that! You know, God created women after man like she’s a second draft. Like how your new phone can do more than your old phone. She’s so much better.”
On the surface, this sounds totally benign and kind of pleasant. I loved the particular lecture this one came from at the time. But it’s doing it again–placing women’s value in their uteri, in their reproductive organs. And talking this way, describing women as the second draft after men, makes it seem like our reproductive abilities are a new feature like a front facing camera or something. They’re not. Our reproductive organs are just a fact of our existence just like men’s reproductive organs are. I don’t see Catholics praising men for their magical baby-making semen (though if you have, let me know in the comments.)
Talking about women this way does a few things
- It boils us down to literally a single biological fact about our bodies. That doesn’t elevate us at all. If anything, it diminishes us to a single role: that of a mother. It’s a beautiful, wonderful role, and a very difficult, extraordinary, and important job. I hope to be a mother some day. But that’s NOT my only goal or dream, and there are plenty of women for whom motherhood is not appealing at all. Which brings me to my next point.
- It undermines women’s reproductive choices. If the best thing about being a woman is having children, then it’s not a stretch to argue that women who don’t want children should still be having them.
- It’s seriously offensive to infertile women, or women with medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous. It implies that women who can’t have children are broken, or missing something that’s supposed to come with this “new model.”
Women have fought for a long time to be able to vote, to enter the workforce, to have equal access to education, and to have control over reproduction so that we can choose the life we want to live. Perpetuating this idea marginalizes us.
Furthermore, in Catholicism, this idea is often further perpetuated by the myth of the virgin Mary, who is celebrated for her “yes” to God, agreeing to be a mother to Jesus. She is held up as the ideal woman: the perfect example of how Christian woman should live, because she agreed to carry a baby to term. She is the Catholic mascot for “siding with God” on matters of reproductive rights. If it’s good enough for Mary, it should be good enough for the rest of us, right? But Mary is just the teacher’s pet. She’s the student whose A+ ruined the curve for everyone else. She’s a fictional character. She doesn’t represent all women. Even if we knew her to have definitely existed, she’d only be one person in one time period with one set of experiences.
I realize that the example of the talk that brought up this idea came completely from my own memory. To supplement that, here’s a Catholic Answers page straight from the horse’s mouth in which a Catholic describes Catholic teaching on men and women. Notice how the primary difference they list is that women “give physical life” and men “give spiritual life” (the priesthood. An arbitrary rule they impose.) Furthermore, as I mentioned was their tendency earlier, they also bring up Mary who, let’s face it, is revered more for her ovaries than anything else.
Have any of you encountered this idea that women are special because of their reproductive abilities in your own church communities, former or current, (regardless of denomination)? What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful to others and think things through before posting.