New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took the occasion of his triumphant visits to Cuba and the United States to refer to His Holiness as “the perfect 19th-century pope”, largely because he seems disinterested in creating female priests.
In her piece, Dowd’s assertions often lack context and the column itself is not particularly interesting, but it was a welcome one, nevertheless, because it allows us to consider how the Catholic Church, more than any other institutional body in history, has uplifted women and encouraged them to live to their highest potential.
Yes, a very sound argument can be made that the Catholic Church has been the means of freeing women, and not – as many unthinkingly charge – the means of their oppression. Prior to perhaps the last 150 years, the great majority of educated and accomplished women were Catholic female religious, who conceived completely original ideas and ran with them.
Think of Elizabeth Bailey Seton, a widow with 5 children, cut off from her own family’s fortune due to her conversion, conceiving of what we have come to think of as Catholic elementary education, and essentially inventing a means for the children of the poor and the marginalized to become educated and competitive in the “new world.”
Think of Teresa of Avila, who not only reformed a corrupted religious order, but then went on to build 16 monasteries, both for men and women, while often in paralyzing pain. Oh, and she wrote a few books that are considered classics of theology, and is now a Doctor of the Church. Not bad for a woman who had spent her youth reading romance novels.
Think of Henriette DeLille, the daughter of freed slaves, and Katharine Drexel, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, both founding individual orders of women who spent their time and energy building schools and hospitals for Native Americans and African Americans in the deep south.
Think of Catherine of Siena, counselor to both popes and royalty, dictating her letters to two scribes at a time. Another Doctor of the Church. Interestingly Catherine was almost entirely uneducated and “unaccomplished” by worldly standards, but the church – hardly an elitist institution – calls her “Doctor” just as it does Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an intellectual giant of music, science, medicine, letters and theology. Just as it does Saint Therese of Lisieux, who entered a Carmel at age 15 and never left it, but whose influence has traveled far.
Oh, and let’s not forget Joan of Arc, a female warrior who led men into battle. Self-actualization, anyone? Sure, the men in the church let her down. But we don’t remember them, or call them “saints”, do we?
The fact is, for all of the talk about how oppressive the church has been for women, there has been no other institution in history which has given women such free reign to create, explore, discover, serve, manage, build, expand, usually with very little help from the coffers of the diocese in which they worked, and largely without intrusion on the part of the male hierarchy.
Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, founded the Hawthorne Dominicans, an order of nuns who take care of cancer patients – free of charge – and who subsist entirely on donations. An American woman named Vera Duss received her medical degree from the Sorbonne and, less than a week later entered a Benedictine abbey in Paris, where she hid and treated Jews who were being hunted by Nazis. After Patton liberated Paris, Mother Benedicta Duss felt called to return to America, and establish a Benedictine abbey in Connecticut where, ironically, Patton’s granddaughter is a member of the community.
Almost from its inception, the church has been a force and fomenter of feminine self-actualization. One is hard-pressed to name a single institution on the planet, other than the Catholic Church, which would have allowed women to simply run with their heads, be who they were born to be, and accomplish great things.
The church has fostered literally thousands of great, great women, whose accomplishments are unjustly overlooked because they were done in a habit and a wimple. Compare them with the “empowered” women of today – women often trapped in their own bitter vortex of unmet expectations, or trained to find “microaggressions” all around them – and the contrast could not be more stark.
Have modern women truly been more inventive, more socially conscious than the Catholic women who essentially invented social service programs through the church, long before governments knew what to do with the orphans and illiterate children of the poor, or how to treat and nurture the sick? It’s doubtful. Are modern women any more free than the religious women who have built and served the churches? Sadly, no, because in our secularist society, women’s creativity follows not the course of God, but whatever has already succeeded for men. Their sense of success is measured not by their service to others, and to heaven, but by the false – and masculine – worldly measures.
Whatever Dowd thinks of Pope Francis, it is worth remembering that it was the Catholic church, before anything else, which looked at the women who surrounded the most Important Being delivered upon the earth and saw them as women-in-full, worthy of honor and exclamation and respect. While Sarah and Rebecca and Esther and Ruth had their roles, and were honored, that respect – that willingness to look at women as more than footnotes but as persons essential to the whole great pageant of salvation – that began with Mary; the woman called by the Catholic Church the greatest of all saints, and the greatest of God’s creation.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia