Catholicism Undervalues Women?
Catholicism Undervalues Women? More like Frank Bruni and the New York Times Undervalues the Catholic Church and Women (Again)
Frank Bruni, an opinion columnist at the New York Times, is quite fond of taking shots at the Catholic Church. He has sniped at Her when it comes to Her teachings on marriage, and his most recent attempt was in a column penned a few days ago1. The column focused on the relationship between women and the Church. His thesis, as evidenced by the title, is that the Church is fundamentally in the business of furthering and benefitting from inequality between the sexes. He goes so far as to blast it as a “bastion of male entitlement” and as “one of the world’s dominant and most unshakeable patriarchies.”
Allow me to begin with what Bruni does well. This is the first time that I have heard a non-Catholic acknowledge that the pope cannot change doctrine. (Many believe that the pope is some sort of absolute monarch who can change the laws of God on a whim. This is false.) He is one of the few that I have read who appreciates nuance, and he should be applauded for recognizing it. Bruni “believes that a change of tone without a change in teaching has meaning and warrants celebration.” I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Pope Francis, with his more pastoral style of presenting the Gospel, is certainly a breath of fresh air. Indeed, while there was nothing wrong with his two predecessors (Pope Saint John Paul II was a prodigious philosopher and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a theologian of the highest order), I believe the Church needed new life breathed into Her, and I think this Jesuit was the right man for the job. Her message was becoming stale, and people were beginning to ignore Her. The problem is that no one can ignore the One True Church of God for long because God refuses to be ignored. Bruni bucks the trend of liberals and progressives (both inside and outside the Church—and himself, usually) who clamor incessantly for changes that are fundamentally antithetical to the Church’s identity and mission. Bravo!
Now, to what he does poorly (and there is quite a lot of it). There are three main points that he propounds that must be corrected. First, that Pope Francis cannot lament that women are not paid as much as men for the same work without being somehow hypocritical. Second, that “reproductive freedom” is necessary for women to be the economic equals of men. Third, that women will reject the Church because of its stance on female ordination.
Pope Francis’ lament over economic injustice. Pope Francis is perfectly within his rights to bemoan the lack of equal pay for equal work around the world. There is evidence on both sides of the debate for the so-called “wage gap,” but there is no need to delve into the studies here. Suffice it to say, Bruni levels an accusation that he would never put forward for another institution regarding another topic. I do not see him attacking suburban white liberals for writing about poverty when they have no familiarity whatsoever with the condition. Nor do I see him criticizing heterosexual intelligentsia and progressive elites (Hollywood types and academics) when they champion his pet cause, homosexual “marriage,” of which they will never partake.
The fact of the matter is that the stances of an organization cannot preclude a member of that organization from speaking out against something they see as an injustice. Perhaps Francis and other male leadership benefit from the disparity, but, in the same way, white middle class families benefit from structural forces that keep minorities in poverty (as liberal theory propounds). The analogy reveals Bruni’s accusations to be hypocritical and baseless.
Reproductive “equality” = economic equality. Bruni writes: “For women to get their fair shake in the workforce, they need at least some measure of reproductive freedom.” By this, it is meant access to and approval of the use of artificial birth control. It is also likely that Bruni would support a loosening (or even a throwing out altogether) of the Church’s consistent proscription of abortion. If Bruni styles himself a tolerant man—“I respect people of faith”2—why is it that his first impulse is to have the Church jettison its ancient (and wholly consistent) ethic of life? If he so values women’s equal participation in the workforce, there is a way to achieve that without forcing the Church to deny itself and allow its members to engage in acts it deems immoral. Why not promote a more liberal and far-reaching welfare state, e.g., the Nordic states allow women to have children without fear of being slighted in the economic realms because of their policies: generous maternity leave, paternity leave, large child tax credits, and similar accommodations. Because of this governmental involvement, women can be both mothers and workers, participating fully in the economic and household spheres. If he truly cares about Catholicism and its teachings, this is clearly the better route (and it is more faithfully pairs with his left-leaning politics).
Female ordination. He later appeals to the masses: If women and men alike reject the prohibition of the use of artificial birth control in majorities so wide that it would be downright sinful to ignore them (see what I did there?), then the Church should change this teaching. If this were how the Church operated, it would have dissolved into nothingness long ago, buffeted about and broken by the intense pressure of sinful masses over thousands of years: Permit—and bless—us to do as we please! This can never be. The Church cannot alter the moral law. It can only transmit the will of God to humanity and administer the sacraments to aid us on our journey. That is Her mission, nothing more, nothing less.
That millions of American Catholics want the teaching changed is immaterial. What about the millions of African Catholics who praise God for the Church and its teachings and live by them faithfully, to the best of their ability? What happens to them if the teaching were to be simply thrown out? What are they to believe? What are they to do? One might argue that we could just change the teaching only for America, but this engenders a metaphysical problem. The Church’s teachings are objective and universal. Therefore, because it is always wrong—in all times and places—to use artificial birth control . . . the Church can do no such thing—it cannot teach otherwise. The critic, perhaps unwittingly, asks that yet another impossibility be granted him.
In any case, that many reject the Church’s teaching is not evidence that the teaching is wrong. It is simply evidence that there exists some standard, some ideal, that many cannot meet—either because they lack the motivation, or for some other reason. As legendary Catholic apologist and prolific writer G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”3
Finally, Bruni cites a University of Notre Dame official, Ms. Cummings, who says that women have “grown up in a world where all doors have been open to them” so that now, it “strikes a disconnect when they see the church with no female leadership.” Bruni asks: “Can the Church afford to alienate a generation of young women mystified by its intransigence?” He cites to Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and wonders aloud whether or not “things could be different”—whether the tradition of an only-male priesthood could possibly change under the sweet fragrance of “fresh interpretation.”
It is an excellent question, and there are two points I would like to make regarding it. The first is that it is not binding Church dogma that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first. In fact, John Paul II surmised (though not wholly absent evidence) that Jesus appeared to his mother before anyone else.4 In light of this theological reasoning, Bruni’s “raise you one Mary Magdalene” challenge in the face of the boys club that was the Twelve Apostles falls somewhat flat. If Jesus did not confer upon his own sinless mother a spot in the priesthood, perhaps He had a good reason?
Second, I think the outcome of the Church’s dogma on “access” (for lack of a better, more sacramentalized word) to ordination will be somewhat opposite of what Bruni expects. In a world yammering on about equality, female empowerment, feminism, and calls to halt the dreaded “manspreading” (the phenomenon where men, while sitting down on subways and such, spread their legs too widely), the Church is very much counter-cultural. The Church is always contra the world because it is from God, who elevates the world in calling it to Himself, but in this instance it is very much on display.
My thinking is that the Church will, as it always has throughout its entire 2,000 year existence, attract many to itself exactly because of its oddness in relation the world, not in spite of it. Many will have their interests piqued by this ancient institution that simply refuses to bend to the dominant modern narrative of unequivocal “gender equality”; they will wonder how it is that the Church remains standing—thriving, in all likelihood—even though it appears, to an outsider, so oppressive, backward, and patriarchal.
Let us only hope that the lives of individual members of the Body of Christ radiate enough of the joy of Christ and the love of the Blessed Trinity and that members of the clergy faithfully witness to God, so that those on the outside looking in desire deep within themselves—feel a call from God stirring within their souls—to enter the Church and say yes! to God.